Francis Fukuyama on Putin, Trump and why Ukraine is key to saving liberal democracy

The man who brought us "The End of History" says America faces long-term "political decay," but it's not too late

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published April 18, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump | Firefighters work on a fire on a building after bombings on the eastern Ukraine town of Chuguiv on February 24, 2022, as Russian armed forces are trying to invade Ukraine from several directions, using rocket systems and helicopters to attack Ukrainian position in the south, the border guard service said.  (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump | Firefighters work on a fire on a building after bombings on the eastern Ukraine town of Chuguiv on February 24, 2022, as Russian armed forces are trying to invade Ukraine from several directions, using rocket systems and helicopters to attack Ukrainian position in the south, the border guard service said. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The world is experiencing multiple crises at the same time.

Despite the availability of vaccines, the COVID pandemic continues to disrupt daily life around the world. Public health experts estimate that the pandemic has infected at least 500 million people and killed 6 million of them. The total human, economic, social and political costs of the pandemic are incalculably large and will continue long into the future.

Democracy is in crisis around the world as fascists, demagogues and authoritarians maintain or expand their power and influence. The global right is ascendant; pro-democracy forces in the United States and elsewhere are, in most cases, trying to hold the line or even retreating.

Vladimir Putin has become the symbolic and literal leader of the global right in its war against democracy, pluralism, and a more cosmopolitan and inclusive future. He has launched a war of aggression against Ukraine with the goal of expanding Russia's power and rebuilding its empire. 

Meanwhile, the global climate emergency continues to worsen, and almost nothing is being done to address it. Civilization will be eviscerated, if not destroyed, unless drastic efforts are made to reduce carbon emissions. To this point, the world's leaders and the global public lack a unity of vision and a common desire to save the planet — and themselves.  

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The sum effect of these accumulated crises is an understandable focus on the here and the now. Many people -- if not a majority -- around the world are in a type of survival mode. We see this in the collective emotional valence in the United States and across the West: There is a shared sense that things are broken and wrong but little public will or leadership to do something about it.

To overcome these simultaneous crises will require some form of belief in a future that is better than the present, and a belief that the human race can actually get there. To discuss this enormous challenge, I recently spoke with political scientist and political economist Francis Fukuyama. He is currently the Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a faculty member at its Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.

Fukuyama is best known for his widely influential (and highly controversial) 1992 bestseller "The End of History and the Last Man." His new book, to be published May 10, is "Liberalism and Its Discontents."

In this conversation, Fukuyama argues for the central importance of the war in Ukraine in terms of the larger struggle to defend global democracy. He also warns that the forces of illiberalism and authoritarianism have gained an important foothold in the U.S. thanks to Donald Trump and the Republican Party, and suggests that the events of Jan. 6, 2021, should be understood as a preview of the much longer struggle to preserve democratic norms and institutions in America.

Fukuyama also presents the case for more social democracy as a way to address America's extreme wealth and income inequality, and argues that doing so is crucial to ensuring the legitimacy of the entire liberal democratic system. He also offers thoughts on why so many Republicans and other "conservatives" have embraced Trumpism and other forms of anti-democratic and authoritarian thinking. In the end, Fukuyama argues that despite its flaws liberal democracy still offers the best hope for human progress, and insists we should remain hopeful about the future.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How are you making sense of the world, as it faces all these simultaneous crises?

Since Feb. 24, we've been in emergency mode because of Ukraine. The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies here at Stanford has supported many Ukrainians over the years. In fact, I just spoke with 200 Ukrainians who are associated with the institute. It's very hard to figure out how to help them concretely given that we are here in California, but certainly through advocacy and in the realm of public policy, we are trying.

I think that our Ukrainian colleagues just like to know that they're not forgotten. Just having that contact with people I've known and worked with in the past is very important.

How did that feel, to talk with your friends and colleagues in Ukraine but to also be so far away from what is happening to them?

It's complicated. Many of them had to send their children and parents out of the country. The men are not allowed to leave. Some of them have quit their jobs and signed up for the territorial militia, so they're learning how to shoot AK-47s and RPGs and so forth. I feel a little bit abashed talking to my Ukrainian colleagues, because we Americans have been supportive of the Ukrainian people but we've not taken any of the kinds of personal risks that they're taking at the moment. Certainly our lives are not remotely as disrupted as theirs are right now. I always feel like I'm in the presence of people that I have got a lot of respect for. I wish them the best, but I'm not in their situation.

Do they have a sense of being on the frontline of history?

My Ukrainian contacts have this sense that they are involved in a larger narrative. Many of the questions they were asking me focused on how the outside world perceives the war: Do we perceive it as just something that is happening between Russians and Ukrainians, or do we perceive the war as something that involves us too? I keep trying to assure my Ukrainian colleagues that the war and all that is happening there definitely does apply to the rest of us. They're fighting on our behalf in many respects. That gives them some comfort, but then the question becomes what kinds of concrete help we are going to give them. That is the more difficult question.

How do we explain to the average American why Ukraine should matter to them? When people in Ukraine shared with you that they are fighting on our behalf, what does that mean?

What we are as Americans is built around our democracy. That's always been part of American national identity. It's been particularly important since the end of the civil rights era, when we stopped thinking of identity here in America in racial or gender terms and began to base identity around a certain set of democratic ideas. The survival of democracy in the United States depends on the survival of democracy abroad — and right now there is a very strong network of anti-democratic forces at work in the world.

If Vladimir Putin succeeds in Ukraine, then anti-democratic forces will succeed here as well and we could be facing a serious constitutional crisis in 2024. It is all connected.

Much of that centers on Vladimir Putin. But that network of anti-democratic forces reaches into the United States, because Donald Trump is a good friend of his. Many of Trump's supporters are on the wrong side of the war in Ukraine. They are on the Russian side. People like Tucker Carlson are on the wrong side of the war as well. The war in Ukraine impacts the American people in the sense that, if Vladimir Putin succeeds, then such people here — those anti-democratic forces — will succeed as well. I believe they actually pose a real and present danger to American democracy, and if they're not beaten back we could be facing a serious constitutional crisis in this country in 2024. It is all connected.

What is so seductive about Putin's ideology. What is the allure of the global right?

That has a great deal to do with the perception that he is a type of political strongman. A liberal democracy is built around many constraints on executive power. That's why we've got courts and an independent media and three branches of government and so forth. Donald Trump was certainly frustrated by the fact that these institutions wouldn't let him do all the things that he wanted to do.

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On his part, there's certainly this hankering after the ability to act like a strongman. Donald Trump has repeatedly said that he gets along really well with authoritarian leaders such as Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. He doesn't like people like Angela Merkel and other Western leaders who are willing to operate within the constraints imposed by liberal democracy. Unrestrained power is what is attractive for Trump and his followers. That is why they like Putin.

How do we explain to people who are attracted to right-wing authoritarianism that their lives will be worse in almost every demonstrable way under that type of regime?

That's why I believe that what has happened in Ukraine is actually a valuable lesson. When you live in a liberal democracy that is peaceful and prosperous, many people take that for granted and think there are no real threats to it.

I keep thinking about one of these incidents where, at a school board meeting during the pandemic, people showed up wearing the Star of David. Somehow, in their minds, a mask mandate or a vaccine mandate is equivalent to what Hitler did to the Jews. A person can believe something like that only if they are very ignorant of history, and moreover, if they do not really understand that there has been real authoritarian evil in the world. Such people just have no context in which to see reality, and what they know about the world is very limited.

What did you see in the events of Jan. 6, 2021?

I had been anticipating violence because I had been monitoring the chatter on right wing websites. I was not completely surprised when the violence took place. I thought to myself, yes, this is an insurrection right from the beginning and there is no question about it.

More than a year later, there are people who — contrary to all the public evidence — still claim that Trump and his allies were not attempting a coup, or that the people who attacked the Capitol were some type of uncoordinated mob, or that the events of that day were not an insurrection.

That depends on who's doing the talking. One of the things that has come out over the past year and as a result of the work being done by the Jan. 6 House committee is that the attack was much less spontaneous than people might have thought at the time. Anybody who has followed these events and what we know now realizes that it actually was a conspiracy to overthrow the government. The people that you are referring to are just partisans.

But what's probably more disturbing than the fact that Trump tried to stage an insurrection is the fact that he's gotten so much of the Republican Party to go along with it, and to try to normalize it. For them, it's just a matter of power. Many Republicans probably see that this really was an insurrection, but they don't want to admit it because they want to get re-elected. They're afraid of their own voters and believe that if they act like Liz Cheney and tell the truth about Jan. 6, they are going to get primaried and voted out of office and exiled from the party. That is the kind of cowardice that is taking place.

Something is very broken in America right now, and that has been true for some time. What do we do with these feelings of broken time and in-between-ness?

Many American institutions that used to work pretty well have become dysfunctional: Combine the checks and balances with the degree of polarization we have, and you get a government that can't do anything.

In the United States we have been undergoing a process of political decay. I've been writing about this for some time. We don't just make progress in history; we can also go backward. To that point, many American institutions that seemed to work pretty well in the 20th century have become very dysfunctional. For example, there is the Electoral College. And when you combine the checks and balances in the American system of government with the degree of polarization we have now, the result is a government that basically can't do anything. It can't make basic decisions about the budget from year to year. It's captured by lobbyists and moneyed interests. Many people recognize that there are these problems, but the system is so paralyzed that we can't actually fix them.

Yes, we are in the midst of a crisis. But the crisis is not one of those urgent things where if you don't fix it in the next six months there is going to be chaos in the streets. It's a much more long-term deterioration. People perceive that the system isn't able to right itself and that, in my opinion, is worrisome.

The problems with the government and American society — with "the system" — that people are looking at depends completely on which side of the polarization they are sitting on. So if you're on the right, a lot of people think that what made America great is being destroyed by liberals and that America's not going to survive in any form as they knew it.

If you are on the left, people believe, I think more accurately, that it's actually the right wing that is the big threat. It is the right wing that is going to upset the whole American constitutional system. The two sides then feed off each other, and in a way each confirms the fears of the other side.

To clarify, I do not want to make that all sound too balanced because I think that at present it is the right wing that is the much more critical threat. But I do believe there is a kind of interplay between the two sides of political polarization.

How do we reconcile the democratic project with extreme wealth and income inequality, both in this country and globally?

I believe that is actually a solvable problem. We solve the problem through social democracy. Democracy in the liberal tradition, in order to survive, must do a certain amount of redistribution because if there is not a de facto degree of equality in terms of outcomes, the system is not going to be stable. The mass public is not going to accept it. The people that lose out are going to want to overturn the system as a whole. In the American case, for example, that system worked relatively well into the 1960s and 1970s. There was a prolonged period of growth in Western democracy because, although everyone in society was not necessarily rising equally, everybody was doing better.

But since then, that has not been happening. Part of the explanation is because of the neoliberal turn where social protections were cut back, where property rights were more strongly enforced. Part of that agenda is actually reversible: If one can pass universal health care, it is possible to restore protections that have been lost. More redistribution is possible. Getting the balance correct is complicated, but conceptually it is not that hard to imagine a return to a more progressive economic policy that would try to equalize outcomes more across democratic society.

Of course, with a globalized economy that is harder to do. Capital is very mobile and such changes will require international cooperation to close down tax havens and money laundering and tax avoidance, for example, as well as all the other ways that the richest people in the world have shielded themselves from democratic accountability. That is a big challenge, but I do not believe that it is unsolvable.

How did such basic principles of social democracy become verboten among Republicans and American conservatives more generally?

Conservatism has changed a lot in the last few years. For example, the role of the state used to be anathema to Reaganite conservatives, and now they actually want to use the state to ban literature in schools. There's an even more authoritarian version of that behavior many of those conservatives are happy to live with, in terms of regulating companies that don't do what they want. Those changes took place under the influence of Trump and his form of populism.

There was a problem with the old welfare state: It had gotten big and sclerotic and there was a necessary correction needed. But those corrections became a kind of religion for some people and was carried to the extreme. In my opinion, that generated a reaction in the other direction as well. All of that contributed to the problem.

What about our big dreams? What about the future? What about progress?

"The End of History" was really about the existence of a progressive universal history and the idea that if you take a sufficiently long view of things, there has been historical progress. I believe that remains the case. If you don't believe that, you should probably go to Myanmar or a country that is living in a prior age where you don't have economic development, you don't have rule of law, you don't have basic justice. Compare that country to America with all of its warts, or Europe, or any other contemporary liberal democracy.

If you take a sufficiently long view, there has been historical progress. If you don't believe that, you should go to Myanmar — where there's no economic development, no rule of law, no basic justice — and compare that country to America, with all its warts.

There's definitely been progress, and I would say that probably the biggest empirical evidence of this is how people migrate around the world. Every year, many thousands of people try to get out of poor, disorganized countries where they don't have any opportunity. There's too much violence, there's bad governance and so forth. Where do those people go? They go to liberal societies where their children will have a chance at getting an education, where they're not going to be stifled for their political views and the like. To me, that is testimony to the fact that there has been progress over the years as we've evolved modern liberal democracies. We shouldn't let our current discouragements lead us to think that progress doesn't exist or that it's not possible.

In the United States, the Republican Party is anti-democratic and actually working within the democratic system to destroy it from within. We are seeing such a dynamic in Poland, Hungary and other countries as well. How does a pluralistic democracy manage that type of internal threat?

You mobilize. You use the democratic process to push back. You need leadership, and that includes grassroots organization. Political parties play a role. That's the way you fight back. That will be hard. A lot of the pushback hasn't been very successful, for example, as in Hungary. But in the long run I am of the opinion that is the only way you're going to push these people back, because I think violence or more radical forms of action will, in the end, be self-defeating.

Is Vladimir Putin a great man of history?

He looks like a great incompetent fool at the moment. His invasion of Ukraine has led to exactly the opposite result that he was intending. Putin has unified the Ukrainians. He's cemented their idea that they are a separate nation with a strong national identity apart from Russia. Putin has wrecked the huge army that he's built. Those are not the characteristics of a great man or a great leader.

Does that historical framework have explanatory power in this day and age?

I do not believe that the Great Man theory of history was ever a particularly useful way of thinking about history. Historical change is always a combination of structure and agents, and there are big historical forces at play that limit or channel what individual leaders can do. Yes, individual leaders are important. But if one just emphasizes the "great man" then you are going to miss a great deal about what is happening in the broader society, because people who are working from the bottom up are powerful as well.

What do you think happens next with Putin?

I do not know that I can predict the future. I can tell you what I hope could be a possible outcome, which is that Putin will be defeated pretty decisively. In turn, that will take the wind out of the sails of the global authoritarian populist movement that he is the leader of, and there will be a rebirth around the world of belief in liberal democracy.

Read more on the global crisis of democracy:

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Authoritarianism Authors Books Democracy Donald Trump Francis Fukuyama Interview Ukraine Vladimir Putin