The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill
A favorite tune in the foreign information operations playlist is that democracies are in disarray, are inefficient, and do not deliver for citizens. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, China attacked the ability of democracies to handle crises, arguing the superiority of autocratic leadership, not hindered by checks and balances and able to enforce draconian restrictions. (Though today, unsurprisingly, China has dropped this take.) When Republican President Trump and his allies attempted to overturn the results of the 2020 elections and fomented an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, gleeful narratives from the Kremlin and Beijing flooded the infosphere.
Our foreign adversaries once again grabbed their popcorn and keyboards last week, as Congress descended into chaos with Republicans in the House unable to select a Speaker. The show at the Capitol feeds into the preexisting lack of trust in Congress and public frustration with politics, creating fertile opportunity for autocrats to gloat.
Beijing is reveling in the dysfunction, as tracked by the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD) at the German Marshall Fund (GMF). Zichen Wang, a Chinese state-media-affiliated contributor, quipped that “Republicans need to learn about ‘united front.’” He also retweeted Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) calling the Republicans “pure chaos” and shared a CSPAN clip of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green (R-Ga.) complaining about the Freedom Caucus. The Chinese Communist Party’s English-language tabloid The Global Times posted a cartoon illustrating the House as a broken-down car with no driver. These are only a few of many examples.
Russian state media has been comparatively quiet about the Republicans’ inability to select a Speaker. Sputnik host Lee Stranahan amplified Fox News’ Tucker Carlson’s call for McCarthy to grant concessions to the 20 Republicans who opposed him.
Malign actors know well that the main threat to liberal democracy is the public’s lack of trust in institutions and governance. They tap into grievance, fear, and anger about a loss of power, changing demography and diversity, and perceived degradation and corruption by an elitist state. Wannabe autocrats pledge to drain the swamp, challenge the establishment, and restore traditional hierarchies.
With the help of many political leaders, COVID-19 fueled this distrust. In response to recommended health measures, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida told citizens in his state they would not be “consigned to live in a Faucian dystopia.” Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s appeal to constituents to consider getting vaccinated was telling and tragic: “Let me make sure it’s clear: I’m not asking you to trust government.” Russia, China, and Iran took advantage, skillfully burrowing their way into skeptical audiences denigrating vaccines and playing on concerns about restrictions on civil liberties. From November 2020 to August 2021, ASD at GMF collected more than 1.8 million COVID-related tweets from Russian, Chinese, and Iranian officials and state media outlets.
Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 elections were fraudulent was another severe blow to Americans’ trust in democracy. Seventy percent of Republicans do not believe the 2020 results were legitimate; 147 Republican congresspeople voted to overturn the elections, and casting doubt on our election process has become a calling card for many politicians. Election denialism bleeds into narratives of a “deep state” and conspiracies like Q-Anon positing that an elite, corrupt cabal control our government. Again, foreign actors have taken advantage of our own homegrown chaos by amplifying disinformation about our elections, the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, and anti-government conspiracies.
Many of the 20 Republicans who blocked the vote for Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) were spawned by this anti-establishment, distrustful mindset. They did not come to office promising a positive policy agenda to serve citizens but rather with the aim to punish, disrupt, and, as former Congressman Will Hurd noted recently, watch things burn.
While it is a small minority that was holding back the Republicans’ appointment of McCarthy, McCarthy himself is also a product of the politics of distrust. He too is an election denier who voted against certification of the 2020 elections. Now the person second line to the presidency is responsible for fueling distrust in the very democratic process that brought him there.
So regardless of who “won” last week, it is a victory for our adversaries. As we continue to denigrate public faith in our representative bodies, electoral processes, the justice system, journalism, and other engines of democracy, we make the work of autocrats easy.
Their governance narrative of the superiority of strongman rule has become more convincing, as evidenced by global democratic backsliding. In fact, an Ipsos/Axios poll shows that 42 percent of Republicans prefer a strong, unelected leader to a weak, elected one.
The best way forward for democracy is to rally behind leaders who build — not erode — trust in our democracy. Unfortunately, we are not off to a good start in 2023.
Laura L. Thornton is Senior Vice President, Democracy at the German Marshall Fund. Prior to joining ASD, she worked for 25 years in Asia and the former Soviet Union for democracy-promotion organizations.
Chinese state media
House speaker vote
Marjorie Taylor Greene
Russian state media