BARCELONA — Last month, when Sweden’s TV4, the largest broadcast network in Scandinavia, sent political correspondent Ann Tiberg to cover the U.S. election, her producers were so afraid of the possible mayhem awaiting her that they insisted she pack a bulletproof vest, helmet and gas mask. Understandably: The United States had often appeared out of control in previous months, and not just due to COVID-19. The president had urged his followers to vote twice and cryptically told the militia group the Proud Boys to “stand by”; peaceful protests sometimes turned ugly, devolving into looting and the occasional fatal shooting; showdowns between armed groups were widely predicted for Election Day.
Happily, Tiberg didn’t need the combat gear. “There was no violence, and not a lot of cheating — the system worked. And people showed up in numbers never seen before. I thought that was so impressive. That’s what I brought back to my viewers: The U.S. pulled it off.”
Citizens across the Atlantic cheered the election results. “Europeans were overwhelmingly happy that Trump lost and Biden won,” says Jon Henley, political reporter for the London-based Guardian. But now, “they’re looking on in shock, horror and disbelief — saying this is not right and this is dangerous.”
After being cast aside by Trump as irrelevant and viewing the administration over the last four years from an icy distance — and preoccupied with the pandemic, Brexit, economic meltdowns, terror attacks and violence-ridden demonstrations against police brutality in France, among other crises — Europeans were bewildered at first by the chaos unleashed by Trump’s desperate efforts to stay in power.
But they are paying attention now. “People are deeply dismayed by what they’re seeing unfold,” says Dave Keating, a Connecticut-born politics reporter now working for French, German and British media from Brussels. “Particularly damaging is that the last few weeks have called into question the rule of law and political stability in the U.S.” And at least some political analysts are worried that the violence expected during election week may instead take place when the Electoral College votes are finalized in January and Trump’s fantasies of overturning the results have become moot.
American presidential elections are, naturally, always big news everywhere in the world, but media coverage in Europe is now awash with stories about Trump’s cries of stolen and illegal votes as well as his mad legal/political dash to overturn the election, competing with news of Joe Biden’s Cabinet nominations and his plans to return to the Paris climate agreement and his pledge to revive the transatlantic bond. Some European media outlets, as well as American, have even called Trump’s machinations an attempted coup, although Europeans who have lived through actual coups tend to have a high bar for use of the word. “We usually think of coups as armed, rapid and decisive,” Henley noted. “This, for the moment, is not armed, and it’s certainly not rapid or decisive. But if you look at its intent, and where it might end up, then we probably should consider this a coup attempt.”
Brussels-based political scientist Roland Freudenstein, director of the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, sees the glass of democracy half-full, as well as half-empty. “On the one hand, the U.S. democracy redeemed itself in the eyes of Europe because the madman was not reelected. On the other hand, there’s a huge discrediting of the U.S. democracy by the incumbent who is basically hollowing out the democratic process from the inside.” Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the election is not just weakening American democracy, Freudenstein says, but also democratic governments all over the world. “We always expected he would cause trouble and mischief, but even moderate Republicans thought this would stop after 10 days or two weeks — but it’s not stopping.”
For Marius Dragomir, Director of the Center for Media, Data and Society in Budapest, who grew up in Romania where his family once huddled around the radio listening to Radio Free Europe with the volume low and the drapes closed, Trump’s recent attacks on the electoral process along with his actions over the past four years are heartbreaking. “America was the model and the dream for Eastern Europe, especially after 1990. But it’s not anymore,” he says, “especially after Trump.”
Seeing Trump place family and friends in positions of power while continuing to make money from official visits to his hotels and resorts was reminiscent to Dragomir of the kleptocracies that emerged after the breakup of the Soviet Union. His colleagues kept asking, “‘Is it really possible for the American president to do whatever he wants and to mix his business interests with the position he has, to do bad things with impunity?’ We are used to that in Eastern Europe — but to see it in America was strange,” he says. “People lost the appreciation they once had for America” — all the more over the past month when Trump went after anyone who failed to bend to his insistence that he’d won. The difference, says Dragomir, is that somewhere like Romania or Bulgaria, Trump probably would have prevailed.
“When people lose faith in the electoral process, they’re losing the most important part of democracy,” Dragomir says, and Trump’s defiance of the results sent a bad signal to fledgling democracies everywhere.
Trump’s latest actions have branded him “a saboteur” in France, says English-born historian and author Andrew Hussey, a professor now based in Paris. “He’s regarded as trying to subvert the democratic process” — a big deal in France, where the republic is rooted in that very ideal, which is regarded quite seriously.
“France is now looking at the United States with a mixture of glee and disgust,” he says — with even right-wing parties, like Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, now distancing themselves from the current White House occupant whom they once cheered. Then again, admits Hussey, France “always has a love-hate relationship with America. They love American pop culture. But they look at the arrogance of someone like Trump and wonder how a so-called republic could allow one individual to wreck it — and sabotage its foreign and domestic policies.” Recent editorials in French papers are quick to condemn Congress for not reining him in long ago — all the more given these past weeks of attacks on the American election results.
The GOP’s complicity and outright support of Trump’s attacks is perhaps what most galls European thinkers. “That over 200 Republicans haven’t stood up and said anything is absolutely ridiculous,” says political scientist Freudenstein. “It beggars belief that grown-up politicians can act like this.”
Worse than handing Biden a nation where tens of millions now apparently believe Trump’s false claims that the election was unfairly stolen from him, Europeans believe, are the increasing divisions in American society, some of which Trump helped to stoke. But the growing schism can’t be blamed on Trump alone. Noting that Republicans won more congressional seats than predicted, Freudenstein believes it’s because “Americans are genuinely scared of violence from the radical left.” He is worried about the rise of antifa and the looting that accompanied some Black Lives Matter protests. “I’m not repeating the rhetoric of Trump and his people. But I don’t think [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.] and radical slogans like ‘Defund the Police’ are helping Biden — quite the contrary.” He’s equally wary of the rise of armed militias — whether the Boogaloo Boys or the Proud Boys or the kinds of unorganized terrorists that allegedly plotted to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in October.
He believes that while they may persist for another five or 10 years, such divisions cannot last, and ultimately a new consensus will emerge from new movements “when people see that this polarization actually destroys the country.”
Except for Hungary, Poland and Slovenia, where the pro-Trump leaders keep fanning the flames that the recent elections were rigged, the theme that echoes across the Continent is that even though it creaked and shuddered, the American system weathered these most recent attacks from the current White House occupant — thanks to its courts, where even Republican judges and Trump appointees have tossed flimsy lawsuits back in his face. “It’s heartening,” says Henley, “that the U.S. judicial system is holding up.”
For Berlin-based Judy Dempsey, a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of the Strategic Europe blog, there are two fundamental takeaways from what’s been happening in the United States during this very rocky presidential transition. “First, you can’t take democracy and rule of law for granted; you have to protect it — especially the courts,” she says. “Secondly, we must find ways to keep the center ground and to maintain a dialogue” between disparate factions.
With 40 days to go, Europeans have joined the countdown to the Biden inauguration, when such issues as climate change, migration, trade and cohesive policies between Europe and the United States on how to approach countries like China and Iran are expected to come to the forefront. “European governments,” says Henley, “will be delighted to talk with somebody who makes sense again.”
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