World Reaction to Trump’s Insurrection: Shock, Mockery, Fear for Democracy
“Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.”
America has long enjoyed the proud reputation of the world’s oldest and most vibrant democracy. We are — were — the City on a Hill, Bastion of Democracy, Leader of the Free World, pointing the way for the world’s nascent democracies, yearning to breathe free and self-govern.
No more. Not after last week’s terrifying insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, incited by the nominal steward of American Democracy, “President” Donald Trump. The bestial in American politics and culture was on full display — a self-administered coup de gras.
But: If we quell the bestial — the dark forces of anti-democracy, untruth, irrationality, white supremacy — we may repair our reputation.
To be sure, our reputation was damaged, perhaps mortally, in the four-year siege of Trump’s tenure, not only by the proto-autocrat himself but by his Republican enablers. In the benighted belief they were joined in merely political and not existential battle, Trumplicans whacked away at the sinews of American Democracy itself — claiming Joe Biden’s victory fraudulent, refusing to ensure a smooth transition of power, misrepresenting — lying — throughout. It’s tautological: Without elections, you don’t have a democracy, you have despot rule. And without a shared reality, you cannot have self-governance.
The world, big and various as it is, reacted with this selfsame two-part theme, as it gaped at Trump’s insurrection going down: It not only remarked on America’s reputation as the oldest and most vibrant democracy, but went on to question the very existence and viability of democracy itself. This was so, whether the reaction came from friend or foe.
Among our friends and allies — bless them for remaining such after enduring Trump’s personal insults and belligerent actions against their nations — the most heartfelt expression was for the existence and viability of democracy itself. (Naturally, our friends and allies would also be democracies.)
German Chancellor and de facto leader of Europe, Angela Merkel, reportedly both “angry and sad” about Trump’s insurrection, stated the obvious: “A fundamental rule of democracy is that, after elections, there are winners and losers. Both have to play their role with decency and responsibility so that democracy itself remains the winner.” While expressing relief “that democratic forces have prevailed” — “This is what I knew and expected from America” — still, “The images that go around the world are disturbing and won’t be seen….as credentials of good democratic processes.” Germans, for whom the U.S., after vanquishing the Nazi machine, served as both postwar protector and liberal democratic model, have, per The New York Times’ Roger Cohen, “observed Mr. Trump’s attempts to subvert the democratic process and rule of law with particular dismay.”
French president Emmanuel Macron, flanked by American and French flags, reacted with passion. Decrying the pro-Trump mob challenging a legitimate election as undermining “the universal idea of ‘one person, one vote,’” he made clear America is bigger than one man, alluding to joint American and French support for freedom and democracy since the 18th century (in our Revolutionary War) and World War II, and to Alexis de Tocqueville’s admiration for America’s democratic project. His message: America, who at its creation held it self-evident that “all men are created equal,” is still urgently needed. Switching to English, Macron said: “I just wanted to express our friendship and our faith in the United States. What happened today in Washington, D.C., is not American, definitely. We believe in the strength of our democracies. We believe in the strength of American democracy.”
British prime Minister Boris Johnson, early on a Trump-like disrupter but grown more sober, tweeted: “Disgraceful scenes in US Congress.” Turning critical of his one-time pal Trump, he said: “[I]n so far as he encouraged people to storm the Capitol, and in so far as the president has consistently cast doubt on the outcome of a free and fair election, I believe that was completely wrong.” Johnson, who was born in the U.S., added: “All my life America has stood for some very important things. An idea of freedom, an idea of democracy.” Finally, echoing the above-mentioned two-part theme, the head of one our staunchest allies said: “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.” Other democracy-loving allies — Canada, Mexico, NATO, EU, Italy, Japan — also issued statements.
Of course, America’s adversaries — all under despotic rule — had a field day with the images of rioting and desecration coming out of the vaunted U.S. Capitol, which images now feature on highlight reels run on endless loop by their state TV networks. Mockery of course has ensued — mockery which conscientious Americans must admit is, in parts, on-point.
Russia and China, run by despots Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping respectively, especially benefit. Those images of rioting and desecration coming out of the vaunted U.S. Capitol by themselves validate the despot’s argument that he, and only he, can ensure his people the stability and security so clearly not available with a democracy. That incriminating imagery also makes the despot’s case to any nascent democrats in their midst — “See, democracy is a mess” and “See, the American system is no better than our own” — and bolsters their despotic methods: state censorship, surveillance of their citizenry, silencing of dissent (by poisoning, murder, imprisonment). To tighten their grip on power, despots will stage a “self-coup” — one that, per The New Yorker’s Robin Wright, “is initiated or facilitated by a country’s elected leader either to seize extraordinary powers or establish absolute control of the state” — which self-coup Trump tried to pull off Jan. 6, but failed.
Scorning any U.S. claim to world leadership, a member of Russia’s upper house stated: “The celebration of democracy is over. I say this without a hint of gloating. America is no longer charting the course, and therefore has lost all its rights to set it. And especially to impose it on others.” In China, while the central government did not issue a statement, a spokeswoman for its foreign ministry, in response to reporters’ questions, suggested in light of the Capitol riots, U.S. lawmakers were hypocritical in criticizing China’s handling of the Hong Kong protests. Throwing the words of U.S. House speaker Nancy Pelosi back at her that the Hong Kong protests were “a beautiful sight to behold,” Chinese media now cites the same, calling the U.S. riots a “world masterpiece.” Likewise the Russian foreign ministry cites an American Russia expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.: “The United States will never again be able to tell the world that we are the paragon of democracy.”
In the Middle East, an especially harsh column ran in Al Jazeera, titled “America Is Coming Undone”: “The jarring bedlam” witnessed by the world “is only the beginning. Over the next four years the remaining shreds of American ‘democracy’ may not just continue to unravel, but the whole rotten edifice could implode.” In Iran, president Hassan Rouhani said the riots really showed the “annihilation of Western democracy” and “how weak its foundations are,” while a former Revolutionary Guard member and presidential candidate tweeted, sardonically: “The world is watching the American dream.” And in the Americas, a figure in Venezuelan despot Nicolas Maduro’s regime tweeted: “I’ll be brief: the U.S.A., what a disaster. We will win!” There were also gibes all around about America needing international election monitors, a service it once arrogantly provided the world, along with safety advisories to foreign nationals traveling or living in the U.S.
In all this accelerating chaos, let us remember: the terrible danger those nascent democratic forces in these despot-run countries now face. As The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum writes: “….the true cost will be borne by those other residents of Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Caracas, Riyadh, and Minsk — the dissidents and the opponents, the world-be democrats who plan, organize, protest, and suffer, sacrificing their time and in some cases their life just because they want the right to vote, to live in a state governed by the rule of law, and to enjoy the things that Americans take for granted, and that Trump doesn’t value at all.”
If it means anything to the world, fewer Americans now take our democracy for granted. Those horrifying images coming out of the U.S. Capitol, and the subsequent investigative reporting on the rioters’ criminal plans (also here, here, here, here, here, and here) — to take hostages, to “kill the traitors” (Democrats) and “kill Nancy” (Speaker Pelosi), to “stop the voting” (the electoral college count), and “Hang Mike Pence” (Trump’s V.P. who was presiding over that count) — has shoved Americans not usually following the news into recognizing that American Democracy is not a machine that runs of its own, that it is indeed fragile. The conscientious American public has always known these truths, thus it is gobbling every new news report, walking the floor at night, having trouble sleeping.
The world, being worldly, will understand the human forces behind the power struggle and the social crisis unfolding in the U.S., because it sees the same populist/nationalist forces at home. The world also understands — at least the democratic part of it does — how difficult doing democracy, self-governance, is. That part of the world understands that, since Time Immemorial, power’s default position — the norm, in historical fact — has always been to the despot, not to the people.
For myself, I take faith in these democracy-fortifying actions: that, despite Trump’s cries of fraud, our Nov. 3 election was “the most secure” ever, with historically high voter turnout, during, let us not forget, a deadly pandemic. I take faith that, in just days, Democrats Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take the levers of power, having proved to be the true democracy-loving small-d democrats. I take faith that Democrats of both houses vow to bring to account any Republican colleague who may have rendered material aid to the insurrectionists. And I take faith that the anti-democratic, proto-despot Trump was impeached a historic second time by the U.S. House, exactly one week after his shameful incitement to insurrection.
Also faith-building: the fact that, at this moment, 20,000 (and counting) National Guard troops have saturated Washington, D.C. and secured the Capitol complex, in advance of the Inauguration….
Shakespeare, author of the quote at the top (it’s from “Othello”), as always has it right, from first to last: Losing one’s reputation — one’s good name — leaves one with very little, and sometimes worse than little: with bestiality. The bestial is now unleashed in America. At this late hour, on the point of losing our democracy, in the existential physics now in play, conscientious Americans know: The only way America regains its reputation is to secure American Democracy. To secure it, fortify it, mature it. Bon chance a nous.
Or as the Italians say, In bocca al’lupo: May you stick your hand in the mouth of the wolf and pull it out again — intact.