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Image: German Chancellor Merkel speaks to U.S. President Trump during the second day of the G7 meeting in Charlevoix city of La Malbaie, Quebec
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to President Donald Trump during the second day of the G7 meeting in Charlevoix city of La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada on June 9, 2018.Jesco Denzel / Reuters file

The one thing Trump got right: The world really is watching

Trump's right that the world is watching, but given what the world is seeing, I wish it weren't.


It was just a few days ago when Donald Trump suggested via Twitter that it was a mistake for President-elect Joe Biden to work on choosing a cabinet. As far as the outgoing president was concerned, there was still a chance "the courts and/or legislatures" would "flip" states and allow him to maintain power.

The missive was, of course, ridiculous. But it culminated in a notable phrase: "THE WORLD IS WATCHING!!!"

Despite Trump's track record for brazen dishonesty, he was right about this specific point: the world really is watching. Unfortunately, what the world has seen of late hasn't exactly inspired confidence in the United States. The Washington Post reported yesterday on international reactions to the outgoing president's attacks on his own country's democracy, leaving foreign observers struggling "to maintain confidence that America's principles and ideals will prevail."

The article quoted Krzysztof J. Pelc, a political science professor at McGill University in Montreal, who offered a chilling view of the American political system.

"The spectacle of the past weeks implies that even if the White House becomes more open to greater cooperation with its allies, it may simply be unable to act on those good intentions," he said. "The great lesson that U.S. allies have drawn from the past four years is that the American ideals of democratic freedom and openness rest on a fragile basis. American political institutions have proven more delicate than most international observers thought. As a result, we are always one election away from U.S. commitments coming undone."

The hope in many circles was that the 2020 elections would reinforce the idea that Trump's 2016 victory was a fluke. As we recently discussed, there was a plausible case the United States could take to the rest of the world: a unique set of circumstances -- the late-October Comey letter, Russian interference, Hillary Clinton's pneumonia, etc. -- which happened to unfold at roughly the same time, created an accident of history that the United States was eager to correct.

But this month has left that argument in tatters. Not only did Trump's share of the popular vote go up, despite his failures and corruption, but his autocratic tactics in the wake of the elections have exposed weakness in our system's foundations.

Those around the world who would love to see the United States reclaim a global leadership role are left to wonder about the relative strength -- or lack thereof -- of the pillars of the American system, while those eager to see us knocked from our pedestal are left to celebrate our self-imposed difficulties.

Politico had a related report this week on global reactions to recent U.S. developments, noting, among other things, that some in South Korea -- a longtime ally -- have begun to question "whether the United States is truly a democracy." Axios added a day later:

A longtime diplomat and Joe Biden adviser tells Axios that the United States has lost international credibility as President Trump spreads conspiracies while challenging his losing election results.... Nicholas Burns, a Harvard professor who previously served presidents from both political parties as a former ambassador and undersecretary of state, says the president's baseless challenges have undercut the U.S. as a beacon of democracy and critical voice against governmental overreach in other nations.

"Donald Trump is doing more damage to American democracy than Russia or China or Iran or North Korea could ever do with their cyberattacks on us," Burns said, adding, "I think it's the most serious threat to our democracy in my lifetime."

Trump's right that the world is watching, but given what the world is seeing, I wish it weren't.