The collapse of the Soviet Union, one of the most momentous events of the 20th century, contributed to a historic flowering of democracy. People who had been in the suffocating grip of communism for decades leapt at the chance to join the community of free, self-governing nations.
Much of the rest of the world followed suit, with democracy advancing in Asia, Africa and South America. The United States provided leadership to encourage this shift. Between 1975 and 2000, the number of countries qualifying as democracies quadrupled.
Today, the trend lines are going the other way. The human rights organization Freedom House says 2019 marked the 14th consecutive year of decline in world freedom.
The reversal is most striking in Central and Eastern Europe, where Freedom House says many leaders "are openly attacking democratic institutions and attempting to do away with any remaining checks on their power." The region has seen "accelerated assaults on judicial independence, threats against civil society and the media, the manipulation of electoral frameworks, and the hollowing out of parliaments, which no longer fulfill their role as centers of political debate and oversight of the executive."
This time around, however, the U.S. is not leading. It's following. The ominous changes in formerly communist countries have also emerged in the world's oldest democracy. Donald Trump, it has long been clear, is an aspiring despot who resists all checks on his power and greed and undermines the rule of law at every opportunity.
Even so, his wrathful attempt to overturn the result of a free, fair election qualifies as shocking. We knew he wouldn't accept defeat gracefully. We knew he would claim he was cheated. But we couldn't have imagined that he would use his position so relentlessly to try to disenfranchise millions of voters.
His legal team has suffered one defeat after another in courts — more than 50 in all — because it has no evidence and no case. When his lawyers asked a federal court to throw out 2.5 million mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania, it curtly refused. A Trump-appointed judge wrote: "(C)alling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here."
An appeal to the Supreme Court earned an immediate rejection, apparently without dissent from the justices nominated by Trump. His own attorney general acknowledged finding no irregularities that would have affected the outcome.
But the president's effort to nullify the election is not the worst outrage. That honor goes to the conduct of Republican politicians who have ignored, excused or championed this assault on the foundations of democracy.
The Republican attorney general of Texas, with the support of 17 other states with Republican attorneys general, is asking the Supreme Court to block the certification of election results in four states that Joe Biden won. More than half of the Republicans in the U.S. House have signed a brief supporting this harebrained lawsuit.
Trump has called on Republican-controlled legislatures in states that he lost to appoint electors to vote for him when the Electoral College convenes Monday — overriding the voters. He and those who defend his efforts have effectively repudiated our form of government in favor of keeping power at any price.
Politicians who accused Barack Obama of acting like a monarch now bow before the mad king as he shreds every norm of presidential conduct. Republican voters turned out in record numbers to support Trump despite his many autocratic abuses — or perhaps because of them. Some, incited by presidential rage, have threatened election officers with violence.
American presidential elections have often been bitter, and they have occasionally generated disputes about the results in one state or another. But in the end, the loser has always accepted defeat. Never has an incumbent gone to such unconscionable lengths to torture the truth, bend laws and use intimidation to foil the will of the people.
For now, the judiciary has proven its commitment to constitutional procedures and democratic standards. Trump will have to leave the White House come Jan. 20. The republic will survive, for the time being.
But the willingness of so many Republican officials and voters to cooperate with his naked coup attempt makes it clear that the survival of American democracy is in doubt. This election may be remembered as the moment when we pulled back from the brink — or the moment when we took the fatal step.
Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.