The two big winners of Tuesday’s presidential debate weren’t even standing on the platform.
The first winner was Russian President Vladimir Putin. The second was China’s Xi Jinping.
Both men are promoting their authoritarian political models as superior to democratic systems that they dismiss as corrupt and failing. Xi aims to convince the world that America is in decline and China is destined for global leadership. Putin wants to show his restless people and his neighbors that the U.S. system is worse than Russia’s.
In his disgraceful debate shoutfest, President Donald Trump did their work for them, denigrating our democracy over and over. And his testing positive for COVID-19 only illustrates his failure to contain the virus.
“The image of the U.S. as the world’s leading democracy is gone,” says Yale University’s Timothy Snyder, a leading scholar of 20th-century authoritarianism. “We are teaching a whole new [global] generation that we are a parody of ourselves.”
The president insisted the election process is “a fraud" and “rigged” against him. Like a Belarusian dictator, he made clear he’ll reject the election results if he is defeated. He told white nationalist Proud Boys militiamen to “stand by” and threatened to intimidate voters with an army of poll watchers, both legal and illegal.
Even after four years of Trump antics, this crude attack on the election process still shocked the world.
“The U.S. embarrassed itself before the world for 100 minutes,” wrote the Times of India.
The debate was a “low point” for the country, tweeted a staffer for the German news magazine Der Spiegel. “The trigger of course: Trump’s uncouth, undignified behavior.”
“The US brand is in measurable freefall, much to China’s delight,” opined Edward Luce in Britain’s Financial Times.
These headlines (and many more like them) are not the normal foreign criticism of specific U.S. policies. They reflect the global belief that American democracy is declining precipitously under President Trump.
They also reflect the fact that — for the first time — many of our allies truly fear Trump will take an ax to the most central of democratic institutions: free and fair elections, followed by a peaceful transfer of power.
Since 1989 I have watched firsthand as would-be democrats tried to emulate what Americans take for granted, first in Prague, Warsaw, Budapest, Riga, and Tallinn, then in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and later in Tbilisi, Baghdad, Kabul, Tunis, Beirut, Cairo, Tehran, Kiev, and elsewhere. Sometimes they succeeded; more often they failed, but opposition leaders could still look to the American model.
Of course, that political model was under stress long before this debate. But the decline accelerated rapidly under a president who openly admires autocrats, and wants to emulate them.
A recent Pew Research Center Poll found that America’s reputation among 13 key allies and partners — including Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, and Australia — has continued the slide sparked by the Trump presidency. Only 34% of their publics hold a favorable view of the United States — and only 16% have confidence in Trump, who ranks lower than Xi (19%) or Putin (23%). How sad is that!
Trump’s dismal ratings have been accelerated by his failure to contain COVID-19 (only a median 15% in the Pew poll believe the United States has handled the pandemic well). His illness - after refusing to mask and jeering at Joe Biden for doing so - only makes the U.S. response look more pathetic.
“The combination of COVID-19 and Trump’s behavior is a powerful one-two punch,” says Snyder, who spoke with me by phone from Vienna. What worries him most is how Russia and China can play Trump’s attack on democratic institutions.
“I can’t imagine a debate performance that better serves the needs of Russia,” says Snyder, the author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century. “Putin says democracy and freedom are a joke. It looks as if Trump was hired to show Russia’s younger generation that the whole world is just like Russia, that there are no better systems. And that Trump thinks the same way as Putin.”
For China, too, Trump’s dump on democracy serves as useful warning to its young people that voting is a sham, and the Chinese system is more stable. Imagine how brave young Hong Kong pro-democrats, fighting for free elections, felt watching Trump.
Trump’s ode to election chaos also fits neatly into Russian efforts at election interference. As Fiona Hill, the former Russia expert on the National Security Council, told me in an Inquirer LIVE webinar: “The whole point of Russian interference is to prove [to Americans] that our system isn’t working. The Russians don’t need to make things up. They can just amplify.”
In other words, the Kremlin need only amplify Trump’s claims of election fraud to stir more chaos on Nov. 3. The president has already provided the Kremlin with its script.
Americans now face the prospect that Putin and Xi will emerge as effective winners of our election — if Trump succeeds via chaos, violence, and court manipulation. Or even if he wins fairly, but continues to degrade our democratic institutions.