BRUSSELS – President Donald Trump's extraordinary, wheedling telephone call to state officials in Georgia seeking to overturn the election results there has shaken many Europeans — not so much for what it reveals about Trump himself, but for what it may portend for the health of American democracy.
With just 16 days left in his presidency, Trump's capacity to shock the world with his epic self-centeredness and disregard for democratic and ethical norms is vanishing. The president has revealed himself many times before this latest episode — badgering and threatening Georgia officials to "find" him the votes needed to flip the state.
But even if Trump has not moved on, the world has. Foreign leaders are looking forward, but many worry that the Trump effect will last for years, damaging trust in American predictability and reliability.
"A lot of people will just roll their eyes and wait for the clock to run down," said Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the U.S. and Americas program at Chatham House, the British research institution. "But by far the most troubling thing is the number of Republicans who are willing to go along with him and what it's doing to the Republican Party, playing out in real time."
Some 140 Republicans in the House and 12 Republican senators have said that they will challenge Trump's loss in the Electoral College on Wednesday, seeking an "emergency audit" of results in some states.
With Trump continuing to have such a hold over the party and winning more than 74 million votes in November, Vinjamuri said, "It shows us that it will be incredibly difficult to govern the country in the next year or so."
If so many Americans feel that the election was fraudulent, "it looks like America can't even secure the most fundamental norms of democracy, the peaceful transfer of power, when losers have to accept that they lost," she said.
Indeed to distant observers, the corrosive effects of Trump's presidency are not isolated to Trump himself but extend far beyond the president — to the deep coterie of enablers around him, in the White House and his party, and even to an American public in which significant numbers believe that their democracy has been compromised and cannot be trusted.
Thomas Wright, an Irish-born expert on the U.S. at the Brookings Institution, said that "People are worried for real that Trump will come back." The months since the election have shown people "just how bad a second term would have been — the guardrails off, a completely personalized government and giving voice to his authoritarian tendencies," he said.
"Now the rest of the world understands that Trump could actually make a comeback in 2024, so that is a shadow that he will cast over American politics," Wright said.
World leaders "all know that Trump is sort of crazy, but it's the extremity of his actions, the lengths to which he has gone, that he got 74 million votes and is not retiring but will be a force for the Republicans" that is disconcerting, he added. "People knew what Trump is like, but the importance is the shadow of the future."
Also troubling to many is the letter that the last 10 living secretaries of defense all signed urging the nation — and the military — to accept that the election is over and "the time for questioning the results has passed."
Jean-Marie Guéhenno, a former French and United Nations diplomat who is president of the International Crisis Group, asked on Twitter: "Should we be reassured on U.S. democracy when 10 former defense secretaries warn against use of the military to dispute election results, or terrified that they believe taking a public stance has become necessary?"
The current acting secretary of defense, Christopher C. Miller, has not cooperated fully with the transition team of President-elect Joe Biden, while Trump's former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn, whom Trump recently pardoned, has called for martial law and had a meeting at the White House, and that has clearly caused concern.
"It's the things we don't know that are scary," Vinjamuri said. "We don't know who else in the Pentagon is not cooperating, and it's worrisome that these former secretaries clearly felt they had to issue a warning to people in the Pentagon that they need to uphold their oath to the Constitution."
François Heisbourg, a French security analyst, jokingly asked, "How many wars can you start in 16 days?" But he, too, was struck by the autocratic tone of the Trump call and the hold Trump continues to have on so many key members of the Republican Party.
If the Senate runoffs in Georgia produce Republican victories Tuesday "despite this impeachable phone call," Heisbourg said, "the international reaction will be that the Republicans are not going to divorce Trumpism — after all, while Trump lost, they didn't lose the legislative elections but did better than two years ago. Trump's ability to get a grip on the party and keep it to the end is what is stunning and what scares people outside," he said.
Sophia Gaston, director of the British Foreign Policy Group, a research institution, said that "President Trump's desperate efforts to interfere with the election results and subvert America's democracy are now almost universally regarded in Westminster as a pitiful last howl at the moon."