LONDON – The U.S. Constitution has been a beacon for democratic idealists in the rest of the world even when in the 1930s Nazis, fascists, militarists and Marxist-Leninists destroyed regimes where democratic institutions had begun to develop. Now there are real fears that U.S. democracy itself is threatened by the attitudes and actions of its president. Even if the threat is not realized, the decline in American prestige and influence as a result of his actions and utterances threaten to undermines the liberal world order.
The recent racist demonstration in Charlottesville and the murder and injury inflicted on protesters against white supremacists reflects the recrudescence of racism among a group of white supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump. His failure for the first 48 hours to condemn evil white supremacists and racists caused much disquiet even in Republican circles. Trump as a consequence felt forced to read out a teleprompt condemnation but almost immediately contradicted himself in truly Trumpian manner and language.
This immediately raised doubts about whether he was himself a white racist. His opposition to refugees entering America from Muslim countries and Hispanic immigrants had already shown racist tendencies.
White supremacists are part of the alt-right movement in the U.S., which has supported protectionist and isolationist policies as well as neo-Nazism, Islamophobia, homophobia, anti-feminism, male chauvinism and sexism.
Trump in his election campaign showed that he sympathized with some of these attitudes, which reflect the worst prejudices of men of limited education from whom he garnered votes.
White supremacists in the U.S. have also been associated with anti-Semitism. Trump, who has an Orthodox Jewish son-in-law and a close relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, can hardly be accused of personal anti-Semitism, but there could be a renewal of anti-Semitism in the U.S. as wealth disparities increase further under Trump’s plutocratic regime and memories of the Holocaust fade.
The alt-right movement is represented in the White House by Steve Bannon, who is the president’s chief strategist and who worked for Breitbart News, which has supported the alt-right.
This does not mean that the alt-right and their supporters are able to dictate American policies or control the Trump administration, but their influence cannot be overlooked. Trump feels threatened by the inquiries of Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor investigating his campaign’s ties, whom he may be tempted to dismiss. This could precipitate a crisis in American democracy.
While there is no alt-right movement as such in Europe at present there are parties and groups with views overlapping those of the alt-right in some countries with entrenched democratic traditions. The murder in Britain last year of Labour member of parliament Jo Cox was perpetrated by an extremist right-wing sympathizer. There are extreme-right parties in Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Germany and France, where the National Front still poses a potential threat to French democracy.
The regimes in Poland and Hungary under right-wing nationalist pressure have shown contempt for constitutional restraints and a wish to undermine democratic institutions. Racism, sexism and anti-Semitism continue to exist in European society especially among those who have been left behind by the technological revolution of the last decades.
The alt-right and white supremacists are not the only threat to democratic institutions. Russian actions in the Ukraine and along its borders forced the Western powers to institute economic sanctions against the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin whom no one would ever accuse of being a democrat. Malign Russian attempts to infiltrate and subvert democratic elections in Western countries have been combined with cyberattacks, which pose threats to infrastructure and humanitarian institutions, including hospitals.
White supremacism has no possible chance of attracting support in countries where other races predominate. But its place is taken by religious intolerance, which is an element in some Islamic sects, among some Hindus and even among some Buddhists, as witnessed in Myanmar. Non-believers are regarded as infidels or heathen and are despised if not persecuted. The 70th anniversary of the independence of India and Pakistan has recalled the images of the sectarian violence in August 1947, which spurred on by extremes of nationalist fervor led to the massacre of at least a million people in the sub-continent.
Racism exists in almost all countries even if it is not exacerbated by religious intolerance. Japan and South Korea look like tolerant democratic oases in contrast to China, let alone to North Korea where democratic ideas are condemned and its advocates persecuted. But complacency is not justified.
In Japan, democratic institutions and principles that were given a renaissance in the postwar Constitution have been threatened at times by extremists of both the right and the left. They seem reasonably secure for the time being, but right-wing extremism continues to attract followers in Liberal Democratic Party.
Some recent legislation that could be used to undermine democratic safeguards has raised concerns among Japan watchers abroad. They are suspicious of the intentions of some right-wing elements in the LDP. These suspicions have been aggravated by the LDP’s proposals for changes in the Constitution and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s apparent determination to achieve constitutional reform soon.
Abe has for understandable reasons connected with the security of Japan felt impelled to develop close relations with Trump, but this relationship could become toxic if Trump’s unpredictability and bellicosity leads to conflict with American institutions or worse still to conflict in Asia.
Japan is not overtly a racist society, but the traditional Japanese view that the Japanese are different from all other races and accordingly special does not make it easy for people of other races to integrate.
Japan’s immigration policy has ensured that Japan does not become a multiethnic society, but the threatened decline in the aging Japanese population makes this policy increasingly problematic.
In defense of human rights, the rule of law and a peaceful world, we must do all we can to combat racism and other forms of intolerance.
A career diplomat, Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.