Trump’s Election Mess, in the Eyes of the World
The Monday before the U.S. election, November 2, the State Department threatened to sanction Tanzanian officials responsible for “interference in the election process” in that country’s recent presidential and parliamentary votes, which were accompanied by violent reprisals against leaders of the opposition.
A week later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed concerns about the election that had just taken place in Burma, especially “the disqualification of candidates based on arbitrary application of citizenship and residency requirements, which prevent the realization of a more democratic and civilian government.”
Yet yesterday the world watched as Pompeo jokingly (or not?) promised “a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.” While the Secret Service has reportedly stepped up its protection of President-elect Joe Biden, other federal agencies are following President Trump’s lead in denying, or at least not acknowledging, the results of last week’s election. The head of the General Services Administration is refusing to start the orderly transition process. The White House budget office, instead of following the precedent of outgoing administrations and not preparing a budget proposal for the next year, has instructed federal agencies to keep working on the next Trump budget, as if no election had taken place. And of course the vast majority of congressional Republicans are either silent about or supportive of the president’s claim that he won the election.
I know, they don’t mean it. The point of Trump’s last great conspiracy theory while in office consists in equal parts of ‘owning the libs,’ ramping up his fundraising machine, and creating a narrative of victimhood that will be at heart of Trump’s future political brand. Republicans are not plotting a fascist coup; they are indulging Trump’s behavior because they are fear reprisals from the Republican base, which they expect to stay under the president’s spell.
But that does not mean that there will not be consequences. Domestically, not recognizing the election’s results and blocking the access of Biden’s transition team to government departments will stymie the new administration’s start. It is also a further escalation of the partisan tit-for-tat, for which Democrats are bound to retaliate down the road. The longer the president’s delusion is indulged, the harder it will be to eradicate the myth of a ‘stolen election’ from the minds of Trump’s most ardent supporters.
More significantly, the GOP’s behavior is a direct attack on America’s soft power and its standing in the world.
In 1998, I lived as a teenager through one of the more tense transfers of power in post-Communist Eastern Europe. In Slovakia, the party of the nationalist prime minister Vladimír Mečiar received a plurality of popular votes in the parliamentary election but the pro-Western opposition was able to secure a decisive majority of seats in parliament. Mečiar had a track record of authoritarian practices, including the intimidation of political opponents with violence.
Yet once his parliamentary majority was gone, the transition was a matter of days. Tearful, the departing prime minister waved and sang to his supporters in an evening broadcast and disappeared into irrelevance. A key reason was the benign influence of the West, particularly the United States. Under Mečiar, Slovakia was falling behind its neighbors in the accession process to NATO and to the European Union. Local actors understood that a chaotic election or an attempted power grab by the incumbent prime minister would relegate the country to the Europe’s periphery for at least another decade.
The present moment feels different. Like the rest of Eastern Europe, Slovakia has become a battleground for culture wars in which homegrown political extremists alongside Russian and Chinese propaganda depict American democracy as a sham. Paradoxically, the Trump era and its impending end could have provided a compelling counterexample—of robust political institutions that can easily withstand voters’ decision to elevate a narcissist with no morality and a feeble intellect to the highest office in the land. Unfortunately, the Republicans’ decision to play along with Trump’s post-election shenanigans will make it difficult for the United States to regain the moral high ground from which it could effectively promote democratic governance overseas.
Worse yet, while Trump’s half-hearted efforts to thwart the election’s result are bound to fail, similar attempts by more competent budding authoritarians overseas might not. And when confronted, they will be right to point out that they are simply following the American example.
Anyone who expected Donald Trump to depart the presidency gracefully was naïve. But let’s separate the president from his fellow Republicans: While Trump simply does not know any better, there are no good-faith explanations for the decision of Republicans to play along with the latest and by far the most damaging of his delusions. Domestic repercussions aside, the rhetorical defiance of the election’s result is unpatriotic and bound to leave lasting damage on our nation’s credibility around the world. To my eyes—as an American by choice, one who was until recently bracing for a battle over the Republican party’s soul once Trump loses the election—this collective act of political arson alone is a sufficient reason to want to raze the current GOP to the ground.