We have promoted democracy in our films and our books. We talk about democracy in our speeches and conferences. We even sing democracy, from coast to coast, in our national songs. We have entire government offices dedicated to thinking about how we can help other countries become and remain democratic. We fund institutions that do the same.
And yet, by far the most important weapon the United States of America has ever used – in defense of democracy, in defense of political liberty, in defense of universal rights, in defense of rule of law – was the power of example. In the end, it wasn’t our words, our songs, our diplomacy, or even our money or our military might that mattered. Rather, it was the things we had accomplished: the two and a half centuries of peaceful transitions of power, the slow but massive expansion of the franchise, and the long, seemingly solid traditions of civilized debate.
In 1945, the nations of what had been Nazi-occupied Western Europe chose to become democracies, in part because they aspired to resemble their liberators. In 1989, the nations of what had been communist-occupied Eastern Europe also chose to become democracies, in part because they too wanted to join the prosperous and prosperous American-led Grand Democratic Alliance. freedom-loving. A wide variety of countries across Asia, Africa and South America have also chosen democracy in recent decades, at least in part because they wanted to be like us, because they saw a way to the peaceful resolution of conflicts by imitating us, because they saw a way to resolve their own differences as we did, using elections and debate instead of violence.
During this period, many American politicians and diplomats mistakenly imagined that it was their clever words or deeds that persuaded others to join what eventually became a very broad international democratic alliance. But they were wrong. It wasn’t them; it was us, our example.
Over the past four years this example has been badly damaged. We elected a president who refused to recognize the democratic process. We have stood idly by as some members of Donald Trump’s party cynically colluded with him, helping him break laws and rules designed to restrain him. We indulged in his “media” cheerleaders — professional liars who claimed to believe the president’s stories, including his fabricated claims of massive voter fraud. Then came the denouement: a clumsy, clumsy invasion of the Capitol by the president’s supporters, some dressed in bizarre costumes, others sporting Nazi symbols or waving Confederate flags. They achieved the president’s objective: they halted the official certification of the Electoral College vote. Members of the House and Senate and Vice President Mike Pence were escorted out of the legislative chambers. Their staff members have been ordered to shelter in place. A woman was shot dead.
There is no way to overstate the significance of this moment, no way to ignore the powerful message these events send to both friends and foes of democracy everywhere. The images of Washington circulating around the world are far more damaging to America’s reputation as a stable democracy than the images of young people protesting the Vietnam War decades ago, and they disturb outsiders far more than the riots and demonstrations of last summer. Unlike so many other troubles over the years, yesterday’s events on Capitol Hill did not represent a political dispute, a disagreement over a foreign war or police behavior. They were part of an argument over the validity of democracy itself: a violent mob declared that this should decide who will become the next president, and Trump encouraged its members. His allies in Congress have done the same, as have the far-right propagandists who support him. For a few hours they prevailed.
America’s friends were horrified. Immediately after the capture of the Capitol, the NATO Secretary General and the British Prime Minister both condemned what they watched on television. The Danish prime minister, the Swedish foreign minister, the Israeli defense minister, the Chilean president and a host of other rulers. These countries feel so close to American democracy that they have taken the stage personally, as if challenging their own political systems: “The attacks by bigoted Trump supporters on Capitol Hill have hurt all friends the United States”. wrote a German politician.
America’s haters said less but surely appreciated the images more. Yesterday morning, after all, the Chinese government arrested the chiefs of the democracy movement in Hong Kong. In 2020 Russian President Vladimir Putin, who did so much to put Donald Trump in the White House, was accused of poisoning his most important political opponent, Alexei Navalny. In recent memory, the Saudi Crown Prince ordered the gruesome murder of a journalist who was one of his most prominent critics; Iranian, Belarusian and Venezuelan leaders routinely beat and imprison dissidents in their countries.
After the Capitol riot, everyone will feel more confident, more secure in their positions. They use violence to prevent peaceful debate and peaceful transfers of power; now they observed that the US President too. Trump did not order the killing of his enemies. But now no one can be sure what he could do to stay in power. Schadenfreude will be the dominant emotion in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Caracas, Riyadh and Minsk. The leaders of these cities – men seated in well-appointed palaces, surrounded by security guards – will enjoy the scenes from Washington, savoring the sight of the United States brought down so low.
Americans are not the ones who will suffer the most from the terrible damage that Trump and his enablers have done to the power of the American example, to America’s reputation and, most importantly, to the reputation of democracy itself. same. Inexperienced insurgents who thought breaking into the chambers would be fun might go to jail, but they won’t pay the real price; nor will the conspiracy theorists who believed the president’s lies and rushed to Washington to act on them. Instead, the real cost will be borne by those other residents of Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Caracas, Riyadh and Minsk – the dissidents and opponents, the Democratic candidates who plan, organize, protest and suffer, sacrificing their time and in some cases, their lives simply 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 does not appreciate at all.
After yesterday, they will have one less source of hope, one less ally to rely on. The power of America’s example will be weaker than it once was; The American arguments will be more difficult to hear. American calls for democracy can be dismissed with contempt: You don’t believe it anymore, so why should we? So much has been carelessly thrown around by this president; so many things have been abandoned without thinking; So many hard-won friendships and alliances have been forgotten by Trump and his enablers in the Senate, Cabinet, and in the far-right press. They don’t understand the true value of democracy – and they never will.