News of Trump-inspired mobs ransacking the U.S. Capitol last week reverberated worldwide, alarming allies and delighting adversaries as it inverted the concept of American exceptionalism.
"We currently witness an attack on the very fundaments of democratic structures and institutions," Peter Boyer, Germany's coordinator for transatlantic affairs, told the New York Times. "This is not merely a U.S. national issue, but it shakes the world, at least all democracies."
The U.S. typically works to project, and even protect, free and fair elections across the world. Traditionally, a U.S. president would unequivocally condemn a defeated leader inciting insurrection.
But for too long, President Donald Trump had done the work of dictators by denigrating our democracy. "We run all over the world telling people how to run their elections, and we don't even know how to run ours," Trump lied at a recent rally. Days later, while grousing about Georgia's U.S. Senate elections, Trump tweeted that, "They just happened to find 50,000 ballots late last night. The USA is embarrassed by fools. Our Election Process is worse than that of third world countries!"
Trump was right about being embarrassed by fools, but not in the way he intended. In Georgia, local election officials — including Republicans — quickly and completely rebuked the president's lies. And the Nov. 3 national election, thanks to the heroism of volunteer poll workers and elected officials, was exemplary, even amid a pandemic. In fact, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency declared it "the most secure election ever," which resulted in Trump firing the agency's leader, Christopher Krebs.
The nation enters this week on edge, with an outgoing administration in turmoil, Congress considering how best to restrain an unhinged president, and a new administration facing a pandemic and other daunting challenges.
But the international damage already is done, and repair will be difficult. "The United States has been a global leader in supporting rights activists around the world in their efforts to expand freedom in their countries," Sarah Repucci, vice president for research and analysis at Freedom House, told an editorial writer in an e-mail exchange.
"The violent disruption of the congressional session as well as President Trump's unfounded allegations of electoral fraud have a massive impact on the struggle of these brave individuals, in addition to damaging global perceptions of the United States itself."
The Biden administration, Repucci added, "will have to work resolutely to overcome these painful events and re-establish U.S. credibility as a beacon of democracy."
The International Crisis Group, which took the then-unprecedented (and ultimately prescient) step of warning of possible election-related violence in the U.S., wrote in its analysis of events that, "having spent decades telling other countries that they need to face up to their problems, it is past time for the U.S. to turn its gaze inward. The stakes could hardly be higher."
Indeed, leaders on a bipartisan basis must repair the remarkable damage that Trump and congressional enablers such as Minnesota Republican Reps. Jim Hagedorn and Michelle Fischbach have done to America's ability to encourage other nations to embrace its democratic idea and ideals.
"Democracy," Repucci concluded, "is not an endpoint. It needs to be supported and fostered constantly by its citizens in order to stay strong and not regress."