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Jan. 6th Changed How the World Sees America

A shining city on a hill no more.
January 7, 2022
Jan. 6th Changed How the World Sees America
Trump arrives to speak to supporters from The Ellipse near the White House on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. - Thousands of Trump supporters, fueled by his spurious claims of voter fraud, are flooding the nation's capital protesting the expected certification of Joe Biden's White House victory by the US Congress. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

The global reactions immediately following the January 6 riot at the Capitol last year can be filtered into two categories: horror and delight, depending on their origin. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson lamented the “Disgraceful scenes in U.S. Congress. The United States stands for democracy around the world and it is now vital that there should be a peaceful and orderly transfer of power.” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte described the images from Washington, D.C. as “horrible.” French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the insurrection a “grave attack against democracy.” Other assessments from America’s fellow liberal democracies included the words “devastating,” “disturbing,” and “horrendous,” and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg decried the “Shocking scenes in Washington, D.C.”

Representatives of authoritarian states welcomed the violent scenes of political dissolution in the most powerful democracy in the world. A spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hua Chunying, cited U.S. officials’ support for democratic protesters in Hong Kong a year earlier and jeered: “You may still remember that at the time, American officials, congressmen and some media—what phrases did they use for Hong Kong? What phrases are they using for America now?” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced: “This is their democracy and this is their election fiasco. Today, the U.S. & ‘American values’ are ridiculed even by their friends.” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova declared that the “events in Washington show that the U.S. electoral process is archaic, does not meet modern standards and is prone to violations.” “The celebration of democracy is over. . . I say this without a shadow of gloating,” gloated Russian lawmaker Konstantin Kosachyov. “America no longer charts the course and therefore has lost all right to set it.”

Despite Kosachyov’s transparent opportunism and feigned sympathy for the embattled cause of democracy around the world, he had a point—according to Pew Research Center, just 17 percent of the countries it surveyed (including the U.K., Germany, France, South Korea, and Japan) say American democracy is a “good example for other countries to follow,” while 57 percent say it “used to be a good example, but has not been in recent years.” Even for people who still believe in America’s founding ideals and institutions, Trumpism and the events of Jan. 6 were reminders that the United States is a large, complicated democracy, which is vulnerable to many of the same political dynamics and deformations as any other country. Or, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley reportedly told his Chinese counterpart in the midst of the coup attempt, “democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”

In some areas, however, American credibility has been fairly resilient in the post-Trump era. Pew found that the proportion of respondents who expressed confidence in the American president to “do the right thing regarding world affairs” increased from 17 percent at the end of the Trump presidency to 75 percent when President Biden took office. And 67 percent still say America is a “somewhat” or “very” reliable partner (granted, these responses are heavily tilted toward “somewhat”). One reason some forms of trust in the United States remain stable is the overwhelming support for several of Biden’s foreign policy reversals from the Trump era, such as rejoining the WHO and the Paris Climate Agreement (89 percent and 85 percent, respectively) and increasing the refugee admissions cap (76 percent).

But the Biden administration hasn’t exactly been a model of competence over the past year. The catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan, most notably, inflicted a severe blow to global confidence in American leadership. Morning Consult found that the United States’ favorability rating in the U.K. dropped by 10 points after the fall of Kabul. Washington’s decision to abruptly and haphazardly abandon Afghanistan probably had a role in emboldening Russian President Vladimir Putin to position 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders and demand that Kyiv halt its efforts to integrate with the Euro-Atlantic world. America presents itself as a champion of democracy in countries like Ukraine and Taiwan, but the depth of Washington’s commitment to those countries in the face of increasingly ominous pressure from their authoritarian neighbors is ambiguous at best. And in the case of Ukraine, Trump’s scheme to withhold congressionally authorized military aid as part of a plot to undermine his political opponent demonstrated that it’s possible for a U.S. president to subvert American democracy and prevent a democratic ally from defending itself at the same time. The failure of every congressional Republican save Sen. Mitt Romney to vote to impeach Trump for this behavior didn’t help matters.

Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election, the first genuine challenge to the peaceful transition of power in the United States since the Civil War, further eroded the image of stability and order long projected by the United States, especially because Trump’s challenge was mounted on the flimsiest of pretexts. During an unhinged press conference in November 2020, Rudy Giuliani alleged “massive fraud” without a scrap of evidence. Sidney Powell, another member of Trump’s legal team, claimed that Dominion Voting Systems used vote-counting machines commissioned by Hugo Chavez and accused the company of conspiring with George Soros and Venezuelan intelligence agents in a plot to steal the election. Trump told Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger “I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have.” The sight of an outgoing American president using the crudest banana republic tactics to cling to power has tarnished the United States’ reputation as a mature democracy—and it has done so at a time when America’s democratic example is more important than ever.

When Trump was impeached, a second time, for inciting the January 6 insurrection, Romney was joined by six of his Republican colleagues, but the Senate still fell ten votes short of conviction. Just as the entire world was watching when the Capitol was breached on live television, it was still watching when Congress failed to hold Trump accountable for creating the conditions for the insurrection. Much has been made of Trump’s pre-riot speech: “If you don’t fight like hell,” he told the crowd right before urging it to march toward the Capitol, “you’re not going to have a country anymore.” But the insurrectionist riot wouldn’t have been possible without Trump’s tireless campaign to delegitimize the election in advance. “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen,” he announced. The election would be “rigged.” In a repeat of his behavior before the 2016 election, he declined to make a public commitment that he would respect the results. And sure enough, after his defeat, it was suddenly incumbent upon all patriots to “Stop the Steal”—the name of the rally on January 6.

Three days before the anniversary of the January 6 insurrection, Trump endorsed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Trump supports Orbán because he’s a fellow nationalist and populist who shares his own contempt for the independent judiciary, the free press, and international institutions like the EU (Orbán’s Fidesz party was suspended from the European People’s Party in the European Parliament for its anti-democratic behavior). Like Trump, Orbán incessantly demonizes Muslims and immigrants, describing refugees as “Muslim invaders” and declaring in 2015 that “all the terrorists are basically migrants.” After the San Bernardino terrorist attack that same year, Trump demanded a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Since the siege of the Capitol, the Trumpist right has become increasingly enamored with Orbán. In August, Tucker Carlson spent a week broadcasting from Budapest, where he introduced his viewers to Orbán and described Hungary as a “small country with a lot of lessons for the rest of us.” Orbán represents a broader trend toward nationalist authoritarianism around the world, from Europe to India to Brazil. Jair Bolsonaro has already made it clear that he’ll challenge the integrity of Brazil’s electoral system if he loses this year’s presidential election.

Freedom House reports that “nearly 75 percent of the world’s population lived in a country that faced [democratic] deterioration last year.” This assessment doesn’t exempt the United States. Beyond Trump’s relentless campaign to undermine a legitimate American election, Freedom House observes that the “outburst of political violence at the symbolic heart of US democracy, incited by the president himself, threw the country into even greater crisis.”

A crisis for American democracy is a crisis for democracy everywhere in the world. While unprecedented democratic progress has been made since the end of the Cold War—often thanks to the influence of U.S.-led international institutions and American security guarantees—it has been decades since democracy faced so many setbacks in such rapid succession. Over the past decade, the Arab Spring devolved into violence, corruption, and the reassertion of autocratic rule across the Middle East and North Africa. China has demonstrated that rapid and sustainable economic development can take place in a totalitarian state, at least for a time, and Beijing is becoming increasingly brazen in its encroachments on Taiwanese sovereignty. And while Putin knows Moscow poses no compelling economic or ideological challenge to liberal democracy, this is all the more reason he may be willing to use Russia’s military power to rip Ukraine away from the West by force. The last thing he wants is a democratic, wealthy, and cosmopolitan neighbor, which would serve as a permanent counterpoint to his brutal and ossified kleptocracy.

Of course the United States’ authoritarian rivals have every incentive to present January 6 as the inauguration of a new era of democratic decay. But what’s even more alarming is how many Americans agree with them—according to a recent NPR/Ipsos poll, 64 percent of Americans agree that “American democracy is in crisis and at risk of failing.” Despite the fact that the 2020 election was promptly certified and Trump’s ludicrous legal challenges were thrown out by the courts, the political forces ranging from rampant polarization and disinformation to collapsing institutional trust leave American democratic institutions historically vulnerable to manipulation by a populist demagogue.

As this rot continues to spread, the GOP refuses to disown Trump. In fact, Republicans can’t wait for him to run again, while 52 percent of Trump voters believe there was “major fraudulent voting” in 2020. Republican candidates are increasingly surrendering to this delusion in an effort to remain competitive in primaries where the legitimacy of the election is sure to be a significant issue.

The United States isn’t going to regain its standing as an exemplary democracy any time soon. Even if global perceptions stabilize over the next few years, the specter of Trump’s return to the biggest stage in American politics will remain ever-present—refusing to convict him for his role in fomenting the insurrection was one thing, but what if the GOP rewards him with another presidential nomination? What effect will the widespread acquiescence in (and the active propagation of) his lies about the 2020 election have on the Republican party’s commitment to American democracy? How certain can America’s allies (or enemies) be that Trumpism won’t continue to dominate the Republican party even long after Trump has gone?

Trump’s noxious influence is simultaneously a cause and a symptom of democratic decline in the United States. Fading trust in institutions has been a constant for years: Just 12 percent of Americans say they trust Congress a “great deal” or “quite a lot,” for instance. But the prospect of Americans losing trust in democracy itself demonstrates that it’s possible for even the oldest and strongest democracies to be captured by authoritarianism. If the United States manages to reestablish itself as a shining beacon, city on a hill, etc., the images of tear gas, shattered windows, and members of Congress fleeing the “people’s house” under armed guard will always exist to remind the world of the day that some Americans, including the president, decided to exchange democracy for the will of the mob.

Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson has written for Stanford Social Innovation Review, Quillette, Editor & Publisher, Areo Magazine, Arc Digital, Forbes, Splice Today, and The Kansas City Star. He was formerly the opinion page editor at The Topeka Capital-Journal.