When you are President of the United States, your words matter. Not just to your own voters, not just to your own citizens, but to people in every corner of the planet.
It’s the inevitable reality of holding the most powerful office in the most powerful country on earth. Every other world leader, ally or enemy, is beneath you on the food chain and watches your every action. They take cues from you; they seek your leadership and they attempt to find ways to exploit your weaknesses.
That’s why Donald Trump’s suggestions that the election should be delayed for the first time ever — and his evidence-free claims that “2020 will be the most inaccurate and fraudulent” vote in history — matter for reasons beyond the President’s own political fate.
The primary focus is rightly on the democratic damage Trump’s claims will wreak domestically. “His false claims that the election is being rigged against him are part of that strategy. They aren’t true, but they will prime his base to reject the results,” said Brian Klaas, assistant professor of global politics at University College London.
But experts say Trump’s comments also send the wrong message at a time of growing concerns that leaders around the world are trying to exploit the coronavirus pandemic to erode the rule of law.
They also undercut the Trump administration’s strident criticism of China in the wake of Beijing’s move to strip semi-autonomous Hong Kong of some of its freedoms.
On the same day Trump floated the idea of delaying the US election, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was demanding that Hong Kong hold its own legislative elections on time in September.
“They must be held,” Pompeo said Thursday. “The people of Hong Kong deserve to have their voice represented by the elected officials that they choose in those elections.” On Friday, Hong Kong’s leader announced the elections would be delayed due to the growing coronavirus outbreak, but the opposition has questioned whether there are political motives at play.
“The problem isn’t just Trump failing to endorse democratic process, it’s that he uses the same strategies as undemocratic leaders to undermine the democratic process,” said Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham.
Cheeseman says there is a “real threat in Trump sending out a message that he won’t stand up for democracy” that less democratic global leaders will take this as a green light to lower their own standards.
“Leaders around the world really do look at the international climate to see what they can get away with. If you see that Trump is unwilling to promote democracy in other countries then backs that up by undermining democracy in his own country, the risk at play for you, say, rigging your own election is significantly lowered.”
Trump’s tweet is the latest in a long line of norm-smashing moves that experts say have damaged America’s global reputation. During the course of his presidency, he has picked fights with friends and foes alike, threatened supranational institutions like NATO and the World Health Organization, and withdrawn from multilateral treaties like the Iran nuclear deal and Paris Climate Accord.
These unilateral actions also diminish America’s diplomatic heft, according to Dr. Jennifer Cassidy, a diplomatic scholar at Oxford University.
“The truth is, that is where real soft power lies and he has done a lot of damage over his four years in office,” Cassidy said. “And while America’s allies might welcome a Biden presidency, seeing it as a return to something more normal, America’s enemies may arguably be much slower to view the Trump presidency as an outlier. If Trump happened once, then why would Iran or China believe someone like him won’t happen again?”
It’s also impossible to ignore that this behavior has been on full display during the greatest crisis to face the world in decades.
“During a global pandemic, the world needs a leader — someone to help coordinate responses to a virus that knows no borders. Instead, Trump has spent much of his time hawking disproven medicines, tweeting conspiracy theories,” said Klaas. “When the world looks to America to lead, they are finding a man who is singularly incapable of leading his country, let alone the world.”
The consequences of this lack of global leadership from the most powerful man on the planet goes beyond his response to the health crisis. The Institute for Democracy published an open letter last month, in which more 500 former world leaders and Nobel Laureates warned that authoritarian regimes are using the pandemic to erode democracy.
Cheeseman believes that their cries would have packed more of a punch had they been arranged by the world’s only hyperpower. “If America had marshalled democratic countries around the world to support democracy in the age of coronavirus, I think that could have been really significant. The signal that sends is we are watching you and we are on it.”
Instead, the President has spent much of the pandemic as he has spent much of his presidency: picking fights and sowing division both at home and abroad.
But experts said the consequences of his latest attempt to undermine November’s election could be more far-reaching than the damage wrought by the pandemic.
“If he loses, he seems to be signaling that he will happily try to burn American democratic institutions to the ground if he believes it will help save himself or help him save face,” said Klaas.
Should this happen, it’s hard to see how it benefits anyone in America other than the President, nor how it stops the international impression that the US is at serious risk of being on an inexorable slide towards becoming an unstable political basketcase.
And both America’s allies and enemies will be acutely aware that the country could do it all again in four years’ time, should someone Trumpier than Trump decide to run in 2024.
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