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Every four years, millions of foreigners watch America choose its president, knowing a decision in which they have no say could reshape their lives. In 2020, observers abroad see a choice that isn’t about a conservative turn or a liberal shift, but whether the world’s most powerful country can maintain the democratic standards it’s long promoted.
A victory for President Donald Trump would be a blow to the principle that leaders should commit to peaceful transitions of power. It would give a stamp of legitimacy to his methods aimed at entrenching his rule, like rushing to appoint a friendly Supreme Court justice pre-election before ballots may face judicial challenges, working to make it harder to vote and rejecting nearly all scrutiny by lawmakers or the public. And a Trump reelection would vindicate authoritarian tactics like his dismissal of opposition to him as un-American and “criminal,” and his months-long effort to depict the US voting system as too broken to produce a trustworthy result, which some intelligence officials call a greater threat to the upcoming vote than foreign interference.
On Tuesday, Trump used the biggest moment of the campaign so far ― the first presidential debate ― to tell violent right-wing group the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” as he declined to condemn them or white supremacists who have expressed support for him.
For Trump to triumph over Democratic nominee Joe Biden would be an alarming sign that U.S. democratic institutions are badly damaged and likely to crumble further. And that would reverberate internationally. With the world’s most influential country clearly in democratic decline, authoritarianism and political figures dismissive of the rule of law will take advantage.
“Despite all the hypocrisy… all its faults and all its problems with racism, [America] is seen as a very vibrant democracy which is discussing its problems very openly,” said Oliver Stuenkel, a professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. “Even people who are very critical of U.S. foreign policy recognize that these things are very important for the global fight for human rights and for democracy.”
Brazil serves as an example. Trump’s shock 2016 win boosted Jair Bolsonaro to that nation’s presidency two years later, Stuenkel said. Should Trump succeed in 2020 using undemocratic means, Bolsonaro could behave similarly in his own reelection bid in 2022 ― without fear of American condemnation.
Possibilities like that are what makes America’s election “so much more consequential than I think most US voters appreciate,” Stuenkel added.
In India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his allies have echoed Trump by whipping up fear of Muslims and bashing independent media outlets, Trump’s attacks on the rule of law suggest even more troubling developments could lie ahead in both countries, said Harsh Mander, a rights activist who runs the Centre for Equity Studies in New Delhi. Fear of international criticism, particularly from the US, is one of the few constraints on Modi’s power. Trump would be unlikely to offer that because of his “ideological brotherhood” with the prime minister, Mander said.
“The danger to the United States and to the world of a leader like Donald Trump is something we are conscious of around the world,” Mander added, describing American institutions as “enormously shaky.”
Trump’s disdain for American allies and values and his transactional, flippant and often brutal approach to global affairs have already damaged the US’s historic claim to global leadership. His disastrous response to the coronavirus pandemic has further weakened the image of the US to all-time lows in some countries.
Now even Europeans, America’s closest partners on the world stage, have “huge concern” over the state of U.S. democracy, according to Nathalie Tocci, the director of the Instituto Affari Internazionali think tank in Rome and an adviser to the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell.
“Democracy is not just elections,” Tocci said. “The real stuff that democracies are made of are the rights and the laws and the institutions. The extent to which that is being harmed and that is being degraded is probably the most dangerous element of all.”
Dark Days Ahead
After campaign season ends, the immediate aftermath of the election will likely spur even more anxiety internationally. The widely expected scenario ― a popular vote loss by Trump, legal battles over ballot-counting and days, if not weeks, of uncertainty over who won the Electoral College ― will suggest a divided, drifting nation rather than a confident, mature republic.
“America is the champion of the liberal order, of checks and balances, and at a time in which… autocracy is trying to gain momentum, the very fact that there are doubts in the US election, such as a contested result and the use of the Supreme Court to find out who will be the president, is of great concern,” said Paolo Magri, the executive vice president of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies in Milan.
Should Trump secure a second term, he and the Republican Party would be emboldened to further solidify their grip on power. That’s a familiar pattern elsewhere: Since winning re-election last year, India’s Modi has revoked the quasi-independence of the disputed state of Kashmir, broken worldwide records for internet shutdowns to deter protesters, rendered almost two million people stateless, pushed new citizenship restrictions that discriminate against Muslims and cracked down on watchdogs like Amnesty International.
“The United States in a second term with Donald Trump might actually see what is happening to us in our second term [with Modi] where all institutions of democracy seem to be being destroyed,” Mander said.
Successful power grabs by Trump would also inspire his ideological fellow travelers. Chamila Liyanage, a researcher at the Britain-based Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, said a Trump win would empower populist right-wing figures in Europe, from elected officials to extreme anti-immigrant groups and advocates for conspiracy theories like QAnon, which are spreading rapidly on the continent. And more mainstream European politicians may be persuaded that emphasizing nativism and ultra-conservative positions on matters like abortion rights is politically smart, Magri said.
Combined with pandemic-related turmoil, election disputes could be a gift for extremists, according to Liyanage.
“The radical right always wanted a crisis to discredit democracies,” she said in an email.
“While their loyalty to Trump can vary, they accept his reckless attack on liberal democratic ideals,” she added, referring to organizations in the European radical right ecosystem. “These grassroots groups are more dangerous than President Trump himself.”
The Biden Effect
There’s an alternate scenario that global observers hope for. Should Biden win a clear mandate and Trump leave office relatively calmly, America could show that representative government can survive even serious challenges.
“It does send a signal that populism and challenges to democracy and to the integrity of democratic institutions are short-lived… It would be a signal to Bolsonaro and to other authoritarian-minded populists, not just in Latin America but around the world,” said Orlando Pérez, the dean of the school of liberal arts and sciences at the University of North Texas at Dallas.
A Biden administration would likely roll out policies that bolster faith in the US and re-engage with the international community, like offering temporary protected status to people fleeing the crisis in Venezuela, Pérez said, and addressing concerns about whether a coronavirus vaccine would be distributed to poorer countries.
That’s not to say a Biden win would be a panacea for democracy’s ills.
“An American president is elected to have America first… so I do not have any specific illusions that a Biden presidency will solve the problems of the world or will specifically help Europe and Italy,” Magri said. “Having said that, I believe that Trump was in a sense a threat to Europe’s unity… It’s good to have someone who’s not betting on the disintegration of Europe.”
Trump cheered Britain’s withdrawal from the EU and has boosted European nationalists who dislike continent-wide cooperation and shared principles about democratic norms.
Activists abroad are keen to learn lessons from Trump’s opponents if the president’s reelection bid is thwarted.
In Brazil, interest in the US election has spread beyond those who traditionally follow the process, such as elite policy-makers. Bolsonaro’s critics are tracking how Democrats react to Trump’s efforts to shape the news cycle. They also are watching whether the party can unite factions like Biden fans and supporters of more left-leaning figures like Senator Bernie Sanders, Stuenkel said.
Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, is another leader who has celebrated violence and targeted journalists. His rise and Trump’s in 2016 were “a wake-up call to our people for action, solidarity, community and movement-building to unite, to protect and defend democracy,” Naomi Fontanos, the executive director of the Philippine transgender rights group GANDA, said in an email.
For her, the attempts in the US to confront its racist past over the summer had already raised the prospect of a “national renewal towards greater justice,” she said. “My hope is that the American people will overcome… There has been so much divisiveness in society in the time of Trump and Duterte, but we shouldn’t lose hope for better days and must not treat each other as the enemy. This is what authoritarian leaders or tyrants do: They pit the people against each other.”
The Deeper Rot
The work of making America a stronger democracy can’t be completed in 2020. And foreigners with the benefit of distance see big problems to address beyond Trump.
The broader GOP campaign to limit voting access and question government institutions and regulation predates the president. That makes this election a “tipping point” and not a shock to Tocci, the analyst and EU adviser.
“We’re taking one step further on the path that the Republican Party has been on that essentially means abdicating democracy. It’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” she said.
A recent report from the progressive group Take Back The Court described how even after a Biden win, a strong conservative majority on the Supreme Court could reject Democratic-led attempts to counter voter purges and the practice of drawing legislative districts along partisan lines, a major factor in the increasing extremism of elected officials.
It’s also unclear how far Trump’s opponents would go to tackle how US foreign policy contributes to destructive trends at home like xenophobia, disdain for human rights standards and executive overreach.
Under President Barack Obama, the US expanded its defense ties to the Philippines ― a relationship Trump and Duterte consolidated even as the Philippine leader led a “war on drugs” that killed more than 10,000 people, Fontanos noted. Additionally, Obama crafted the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an expansive trade deal that activists in her country and its neighbours saw as “anti-environment, anti-poor and anti-worker” ― and that she believes Biden would revive. (Biden championed the agreement during the Obama administration but now says he would not join it as it stands and would renegotiate it.)
“What we need is for leaders in the Philippines and the US to realise how something like the [deal allowing military exercises in the Philippines] enables continued American imperialism,” Fontantos said.
And defeating Trump doesn’t mean defeating all the forces interested in a more authoritarian direction for global politics.
“If Joe Biden wins, the radical right narrative would be emboldened to claim that the leftist Democrats… and the globalists seized power,” said Layanage, the researcher on European right-wing extremism. “Given how far and wide these strange belief systems have already circulated… Biden’s win will present him with wider challenges as a leader of a beleaguered democracy.”
In places where coronavirus concerns have already been used as a cover for more autocratic measures to control people, like parts of Latin America, the path to greater freedom extends well beyond the US election.
“Having Biden as president and beating Trump is going to send a positive signal about the perils of populism and of challenging democratic institutions, but it doesn’t mean that everybody in the region is going to listen to it,” Pérez said.