The President’s attempts to prematurely claim an election victory has the potential to destroy American moral leadership, says Steve Shaw

As the world waits to see who will be the next President of the United States, a sinister scenario is beginning to play out, with Donald Trump throwing around unfounded accusations that could undermine global democracy and empower dictators.

This morning, Trump stood in the White House and claimed that “frankly, we did win this election”, despite the result still being uncertain. He went on to claim that “fraud” is underway through postal votes and said that he will be asking the Supreme Court to intervene.

The speech was quickly branded “outrageous” and “unprecedented” by the Democratic campaign and has left an already divided America fearing that Trump will refuse to give up power if he loses once all the results are in.

But it is not just Americans who will be watching Trump’s handling of the election result. Authoritarian leaders around the world will be looking on as a nation that was once a moral leader descends further to a level they can understand.

The End of Moral Leadership

America rarely lives up to its own aspirations or the sweeping claims about democracy, human rights and freedom made by its political leaders, to the extent that, in January, The Economist’s Democracy Index rated it as a “flawed democracy”. But, since the Second World War, it has done enough to position itself as a global leader and to many, a moral leader.

This is because, for all its flaws, people around the world see the United States as a country with democratic ideals worth aspiring to. The perception of these ideals often motivates global protest movements where the disenfranchised bravely call for the overthrow of dictators. Many dream of a better life, if only their own governments would follow in America’s footsteps.

But when a US president mimics authoritarian leaders – threatening not to give up power and making accusations of voter fraud – it is a risk, not just to the US, but also to the world and an opportunity for dictators and despots. 

On one level, the Trump administration has at least tried to give the impression that it is following America’s traditional rhetoric in favour of freedom and human rights during its four years in power. Trump’s decision to place sanctions on Hong Kong officials and to call out China for crushing what was left of the city’s democracy, for instance, won the approval of Hong Kong residents, who praised him for being willing to stand up to Beijing when others hadn’t.

But, more fundamentally, Trump has shown little care for foreign repression and at times has praised authoritarian leaders, not least Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, China’s Xi Jinping and leader of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte.

If Trump loses the 2020 election yet refuses to step down – a scenario the US lacks any sort of precedent for dealing with – he will completely undermine America’s ability to take the moral high ground over corrupt governments and human rights abusers. In the example of Hong Kong, what right would America have to lecture Chinese President Xi Jinping on the democratic rights of Hong Kong’s people, if its leader has clung to power by violating those same democratic rights?

In 2018, the Trump administration pushed for the overthrow of Venezuelan leader Nicholas Maduro by claiming that the results of the country’s election were a “sham”. Trump went as far as to imply that he was considering the use of military force to remove Maduro. Such assertions would have no credibility if Trump refuses to let go of power in his own democratic election.

Similarly, Myanmar is gearing up to hold its own elections on 8 November but the run-up has been plagued with allegations of corruption and violence. The population of the war-torn country has been desperate to move beyond the dark days of its military dictatorship, but if Trump does not respect democracy, what impetus will the already authoritarian leaders of Myanmar have to change?

The Actions of a Dictator

Earlier this year, China had already started to set an example for how authoritarian leaders can take advantage of US hypocrisy.

When anti-racism protestors in America were met with tear gas and rubber bullets, Beijing seized on the news and used it as justification for harsh violence used against protestors in Hong Kong.

This was followed shortly after by Iran, which also lashed out at the US, comparing the death of George Floyd to “the feet of arrogance on the neck of independent nations”.

The comments had little impact on Trump, who was happy to threaten to use the military against American protestors, something that even China was not willing to do as it battled to end the unrest in Hong Kong.

Now, his decision to contest a perfectly legitimate election will have begun to echo around the world. And, if he does succeed in winning a second term, his past erratic and unpredictable behaviour – which has included unilaterally ripping up international accords and undermining NATO – will only get worse, further empowering authoritarians of the world.

Iran, China and many other countries will be watching the American election closely and looking for opportunities to exploit. The repercussions for the people living under their rule will not be positive.

As the American historian Michael Beschloss said on Twitter: “Trump claiming a victory he never won, and saying he will take it to the Supreme Court. This is what dictators do. Stop.”


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