Foreign Affairs

The World Looks to Belarus with Outrage and Fear: Are Americans Getting a Glimpse of their Grim Future?

One week after the contested re-election of longtime President and dictator of Belarus, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, protestors flooded the streets of Minsk, crying out for democracy and the immediate resignation of their 26-year leader. The European Council criticized the election, declaring it “fraudulent” and not agreeable with international standards.

From a distance, Belarus, a former member of the authoritarian USSR, may seem like the cultural antithesis of the democratic United States. However, putting both countries and their governments under a microscope reveals a surprising number of parallels. Though Lukashenko is widely regarded as “Europe’s Last Dictator,” President Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on the news media and jabs at mail-in voting make him look like America’s first.

Some will surely disregard this as hyperbole, asking themselves how the US, with its list of freedoms and democratically elected officials, could be anything like a country with a dictator, a state-owned economy, and no freedom of speech. To start, America, in all its glory, is not as much of a democracy as most would suggest.

Yes, America may fit the idealistic democratic image. The people are free, they share some form of baseline equality, and most importantly, every year on Election Day, Americans go out and vote. They get some say in who represents them in Congress and who governs their cities. Nevertheless, for a supposed democracy to truly be a democracy, elections must be based on fairness, uncorrupted by outside sources, and decided entirely by the people. This is not entirely the case in the U.S.

To some, this vision of a free and equal America is enough to constitute democracy despite the fact that a select few have more power to sway this vote than others, and some, in American territories like Puerto Rico, have no say at all. This understanding of the U.S as the epitome of western democracy does not account for the system’s nuance or the many ways to corrupt it. 

Take the 2016 election for example. While Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton received 3 million more votes than Republican nominee Donald Trump, marginal wins in states like Pennsylvania and Florida still allowed Trump to secure a 270 electoral majority despite being the less popular candidate. This result did not reflect the opinions of the majority. With the current system, some votes have more power than others, and legitimate popularity has absolutely no importance. American elections are inherently flawed, and the Electoral College is just the beginning.

Regardless of their internal faults, our elections are influenced by outside sources. In 2016, Russia hacked both the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign and used social media to release information and propaganda to the American public. They stole private voter information from state election systems and entertained long-standing relationships with high-ranking members of the Trump campaign, including former campaign chair Paul Manafort. In a February briefing with House lawmakers, top intelligence officials reported that this interference is ongoing. 

Now, amidst an international pandemic that has killed more than 210,000 Americans, the most dangerous threat to our election comes not from the system or Russia, but the President himself. Donald Trump is an admirer of autocracy and a by-the-book populist. He entered the political scene as an outsider and used fear and inflammatory language to demonize immigrants, elites, and liberals. He has befriended dictators in North Korea and Russia, writing them love letters and singing their praises, while aggravating relations with our democratic allies in Europe, imposing trade embargoes, and ending peace treaties. This isn’t just a different administration with different values. It’s a warning sign —a huge red flag.

America is obviously in crisis. A thousand Americans are dying every day, scientists are months from a vaccine, and the unemployment rate is astronomical. Instead of using the powers of the President to curb the spread of the virus or prevent more American deaths, President Trump is attacking vote-by-mail and trying to interfere with our democratic elections.

Because of how COVID-19 spreads, through close person-to-person contact, many believe in-person voting, with its long lines and crowded spaces, will increase community spread and pose risks to those with pre-existing conditions. As an alternative, many are turning to a vote-by-mail system which is entirely reliant on the accuracy and diligence of the United States Postal Service. President Trump wants to disrupt this accuracy and make it as hard as possible for Americans to vote this November. He wants to use this pandemic to stifle American democracy and stay in power.

Despite a majority of Americans supporting mail-in voting, President Trump has attacked the program, saying it is “horrible,” “corrupt,” and has “tremendous potential for voter fraud.” However, there is no evidence that mail-in voting is any more or less fraudulent than in-person voting.

To avoid the supposed “danger” and “corruption” Trump claims will come from a mail-in voting system, he has suggested postponing the election and defunding the USPS. Although election dates are fixed and protected by the Constitution, this threat demonstrates his disdain for the Constitution, disinterest in the rules of the game, and disregard for America’s democratic process.

President Trump’s assaults on mail-in voting are disenfranchising Americans. Fueled by the pandemic and general underfunding, the Postal Service is on the brink of fiscal collapse. In March, The White House rejected a bipartisan bill to provide the USPS with a 13 billion dollar bail-out and has declined to offer any financial assistance since. In an August briefing, President Trump admitted to opposing USPS funding because it would increase the capacity of mail-in voting and potentially help Democrats.

Election manipulation and voter suppression are not actions taken by a President who respects democracy. They are the actions of a wannabe autocrat.

In Belarus, Lukashenko and his presiding government stifle self-determination by removing opposition candidates from ballots and ballot stuffing. Arguably more visibly damning, the result of Lukashenko’s corruption and Trump’s attacks on USPS is comparable. Both subdue the voice of the people for the continued comfort and wealth of those in power.

This November, as COVID rates are likely to remain high, will Americans run to the streets in protest of an undemocratic election? Will America look like a democracy or will it mirror Belarus?

The answer lies in the hands of Donald Trump, whether he wants to look like his authoritarian idols or like his democratic allies. The choice he makes approaching November will shape America. However, it is up to the people to respond, protest, and fight for the rights America promised them.

Disillusioned or patriotic, Americans must vote. They must convince their brothers, sisters, neighbors, and friends.  Democracy lies in the will of the people, and Americans have a responsibility to protect it.

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