The world watched today as the president of the United States confirmed his critics’—and American allies’—fears, railing baselessly against election fraud, arguing from his perch in the White House that he had won an election whose result remained in doubt.
Donald Trump’s remarks signaled a dangerous new episode in the soap opera of his presidency. Waking up to the news that he has claimed victory—despite official and media sources, to say nothing of the Joe Biden campaign, insisting any final result remains some ways off—the world has been forced to confront its faith not just in America, but in the American idea.
Before today, the American president himself could be loathed or ridiculed, the nature of American power challenged, and even the corruption of American politics debated. Yet few doubted the strength of America’s constitutional nature, the foundation upon which it built its republic. There have been disputed elections before—hanging chads and worse—but Trump’s comments, made before all the votes have been tallied nationwide and with multiple states up for grabs, signaled a break. This is no constitutional crisis, yet, but a president laying claim to an office he has not won (albeit one he might) is a crisis of its own.
Speaking to a room of cheering supporters in the early hours of the morning, Trump began his address by listing favorable vote counts in an array of crucial states. His speech then took a darker turn. “This is a fraud on the American public,” he said, apparently referencing claims that he had not yet secured victory. “This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election.” Trump said millions of Americans had voted for him, but claimed the Democrats were trying to steal the election from them. “A very sad group of people are trying to disenfranchise that group of people, and we won’t stand for it.”
The world has long looked at the American experiment with a sense of awe, disbelief, and skepticism that it could hold. In 1835, with the United States a mere fledgling, its original foreign chronicler, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote of the “feverish excitement” that gripped the country at election time, but observed that normality quickly resumed once the result was clear. “As soon as the choice is determined,” he wrote in Democracy in America, “this ardor is dispelled; and as a calmer season returns, the current of the State, which had nearly broken its banks, sinks to its usual level: but who can refrain from astonishment at the causes of the storm.” Today the world watches, wondering whether the latest current has finally broken its banks—the storm of this particular election and this particular president too much for the system to bear.
Outside the U.S., there is despair. The impact of what is happening will be felt much further afield, the consequences not just practical and domestic but philosophical and global. Diplomats and officials I spoke with have voiced worry over the future of the U.S.-led Western alliance, and over the implications for countries abroad. Today, with Washington in chaos, its future sovereign unknown, it is the idea of America that risks being submerged, an idea that much of the world has grown to rely on—and, indeed, has adopted.
From here in London, the U.S. might often have resembled a foreign country linked to its motherland by a common language, but its fundamental nature as a land of freedom and democracy was largely taken for granted. For good or bad, the people were in charge, and power was transferred (or retained) peacefully, because the Constitution said so and Americans would never accept anything less.
Yet across the world, regimes and philosophies now seek the material wealth of the U.S., but without its commitment to democracy and the free, fair, and elected transfer of power. In China and Russia and Turkey and even parts of the European Union, the American idea is being challenged.
If such an idea can be questioned, one is forced to confront deeper questions about the strength of the U.S. itself, as well as the Western world, which is predicated on its power.
De Tocqueville appreciated that underneath the constitutional foundation of American stability lay even deeper trenches—the accepted norms that held its society together. At the root lies its commitment to republican government and the sovereignty of the people. If this goes, then there really is a problem. “Without such common belief no society can prosper,” he wrote. “For without ideas held in common, there is no common action, and without common action, there may still be men, but there is no social body.”
America has suffered crises of confidence before.
Flying home from South Korea in April 1951, after his dismissal by President Harry Truman, General Douglas MacArthur was uncertain of the reception he would receive, as Robert Caro recalls in the third volume of his biographical series The Years of Lyndon B. Johnson. MacArthur was a war hero, ordered home by Truman for openly questioning the president’s control of the conflict in Korea. It was a conflict between elected leader and imperial warlord that would test the strength of not only the U.S. Constitution, but the norms that held it together.
MacArthur was welcomed home by half a million San Franciscans, before heading to Washington, D.C., the following day to address a joint session of Congress, giving an unapologetic defense of his policies and a denunciation of Truman’s. It was a direct challenge to the concept of civilian control of the armed forces, and the frenzy it produced caused some to fear for the nature of American democracy itself. In the pandemonium after MacArthur’s speech, Representative Dewey Sort of Missouri shouted: “We heard God speak here today.” Herbert Hoover called the general “a reincarnation of Saint Paul into a great general of the Army who came out of the east.” The reporter George Reedy, who would go on to work for Lyndon Johnson, recalled that it was “the only time in my life that I ever felt my government to be fragile.” The Senate, that archaic, delaying body of conservatism, eventually took the sting out of the affair by moving to investigate the dispute, and eventually protecting the authority of the president.
Like what is happening today, this was not simply an American crisis, but a global one. In Japan, where MacArthur had been supreme commander for the Allied Powers, a form of imperial governor representing the new superpower, the population was “stricken,” William Manchester wrote in his biography of MacArthur, American Caesar. The emperor appeared at the American embassy before MacArthur departed and told him of his distress. Japan’s parliament, the Diet, passed a resolution of gratitude in honor of the general. The Tokyo daily, Mainichi, declared that MacArthur had dealt with the Japanese people “not as a conqueror but a great reformer.” In Europe, the response was different: The front page of London’s Evening Standard trumpeted “Mac Is Sacked,” Manchester noted, while the French paper Ce Soir declared that Truman had acted under the volunte pacifique, or “desire for peace,” of the world’s peoples, implicitly acknowledging that the American president was the leader of the world as well. The American idea had enormous effects far beyond the country’s borders, as it does now.
That the situation in the U.S. did not spiral out of control was a testament to the country’s constitutional order, but just as important to its conventions and its people’s commitments to the republic’s foundational principles. The episode is a reminder that democracies, even those as great as the United States, fundamentally rely on the reasonable behavior of reasonable people committed to the principles that hold the system together.
Today, the U.S. is not the infant republic of 1835, nor the undisputed global hegemon of the 1950s, but is rooted in the same principles. And given its position in the world, its power and reach, faith in this idea is not just a question for its citizens, but the world’s. Much of this world has submitted to American power in part because of its faith in the American idea itself, and faith in the leaders supporting that idea. If the idea goes, what is left for the world to look to? Will future presidents enjoy such global support as Truman did? Or indeed, future supreme commanders the peaceful gratitude of conquered peoples as MacArthur did?
In April 1950, a year before MacArthur’s challenge to presidential authority, Truman sat down to compose a note, announcing that he would not run for reelection. “In my opinion eight years as President is enough and sometimes too much for any man to serve in this capacity,” Truman wrote. He wanted a return to the two-term convention that his predecessor had broken, even though he would technically be entitled to run again, having become president only after Roosevelt’s death. “This is a Republic,” he wrote. “The greatest in the history of the world. I want the country to continue as a Republic.” Today, the president tweets about electoral theft, and claims victory before all the votes are tallied.
Truman said nothing on the matter and put the handwritten pages away, but stuck to his word. He had opposed the Twenty-Second Amendment limiting presidents to only two terms in office, because he believed the custom of term limits should be maintained through honor, not law. Today, with the very nature of free and fair elections being contested, such concerns seem almost naively wistful. Yet to now read the note, published in David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biography, Truman, is to be reminded that the customs of American life and democracy are constantly being challenged and, as such, must constantly be renewed.
De Tocqueville worried about the transfer of power in the U.S., too. “Intrigue and corruption are the natural defects of elective government,” he claimed—and none more so than when it concerned the contest to become the next head of state. “The most weighty argument against the election of a chief magistrate is that it offers so splendid a lure to private ambition,” he wrote, in words that now seem remarkably farsighted. ”When legitimate means are wanting, force may not unfrequently seize what right denied.”
For de Tocqueville, the dangers of presidential corruption in the U.S. were mitigated, first by the paucity of the president's power compared with those held by the European monarchs, and second by the country’s geographic isolation. America was unique—it could stand alone. The power of the modern presidency would be unimaginable to any 19th-century European, and while the country’s location remains just as impregnable, its commitments span the globe. Yet the one constant is the American idea. And that is what is now being called into question.
Christopher Meyer, Britain’s ambassador to the U.S. during the 2000 election, told me that this year felt different from his last experience. “That had its tense moments,” he said, “but Gore and Bush were decorous opponents and Gore conceded gracefully when the Supremes ruled against him.” Today, he is worried about the personalities at the top, the multiple legal challenges to come, and the violence that could result. “The U.S. is then little different from a West African republic,” he said. Then, referencing the Germanic myth of the downfall of the gods, he continued: “It could be Götterdämmerung for America and the entire international system put in place post-1945.”
Others I spoke with, most of whom requested anonymity to freely discuss the electoral situation, were similarly downcast, if less poetic. One former Trump-administration official told me the crisis could have a “major knock-on effect across Europe as well as places like Japan.” A foreign diplomat in Washington said the chaotic result would play into the Russia-China narrative of the U.S. as a declining power and no longer a beacon of democracy. A European diplomat based in Brussels said the lack of clarity was “quite scary,” arguing that America’s allies could not trust the country to lead the Western alliance if there was no name on the driver's seat. Another former British ambassador to Washington, David Manning, told me it was “not just a trial for America but the whole democratic system,” while Michel Duclos, a former French deputy permanent representative to the United Nations and ambassador to Syria, said a contested result was a “nightmare we all share.”
I also asked two senior British members of Parliament, both from the governing Conservative Party, about the state of America. One said that it was a “disaster.” The other replied, “This is what decline looks like.”
Peter Nicholas contributed reporting.