The US faces grave, simultaneous crises; one an exploding pandemic, the other an attack on the country’s democracy by a sitting president. It’s hardly a scene that inspires awe.
The effort of incoming President-elect Joe Biden and his administration — and of the American people — to undo the damage Trump caused and push back against his most recent outrages will go a long way in determining whether the US can regain the global stature Trump squandered. The world is watching with astonishment — as are countries who would normally look to the United States for leadership and protection.
Step one requires showing decisively that the voters have chosen Biden. That despite Trump’s lies, he won the election. That’s a job for all Americans who must continue to demand an end to Trump’s machinations and reassert their faith in democracy. It was the work of American citizens that ended Trump presidency. Their continued engagement would help the healing. Then, Biden must start showing that America still supports strengthening democracies around the world and intends to speak out on human rights. At the same time, the new administration must return competence and truth to governance, beginning with the pandemic.
The United States, home to many of the world’s top public health experts, institutions and resources, is in the midst of a what CNN’s Sanjay Gupta and others have called humanitarian disaster, with the Covid-19 pandemic spiraling out of control. The medical aid organization Doctors Without Borders, better known for its work in remote war zones and natural disasters, has deployed to help Americans survive this calamity.
The pandemic itself is not Trump’s fault, but his refusal to acknowledge the magnitude and urgency of the problem and respond accordingly, and his incessant lies and obfuscations that undercut the public health effort, are arguably the primary reason why this country, which was in a position to tackle the pandemic at least as effectively as any other, never managed to end the first wave before the second one started slamming like a merciless tsunami. Today, the rate of new infections is soaring, now approaching a barely-believable million new cases per week; more than one every second, with worse to come, according to experts.
As if the pandemic weren’t enough of a national emergency, and America’s abject failure to deal with it enough of a national embarrassment, Trump has gone to war against America’s democracy before the eyes of an astonished world.
Trump has taken the globe’s iconic democracy, the one whose declaration of independence was brandished and studied by democracy activists the world over, and sullied its political system by groundlessly attacking legitimate election results. A world that used to laugh at Trump — and laugh it did — is now deeply alarmed by what he is doing to American democracy, struggling to understand quite what happened to the country.
The organization known as The Elders, a group of senior independent global political figures founded by Nelson Mandela, is now urging American leaders to stand up for the country’s democracy, as it has done in developing nations with shallow democratic roots and deeply unstable political systems.
The Elders expressed concern about Trump’s refusal to adhere to normal democratic standards, “putting at risk the functioning of American democracy.” The group’s chairwoman, former Irish President Mary Robinson, said “It is shocking to have to raise concerns about US democracy processes as The Elders have previously commented in volatile and undemocratic situations such as Kenya, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.”
On a personal note, I share not only the alarm but the profound sadness at seeing the United States in this position. Like other journalists, I have covered the struggles of democracy activists and everyday people in many countries seeking to create or safeguard democracy where they live. I never thought I’d see that happen in the United States. In fact, the US was often not just the democratic symbol that those yearning for democracy looked to for inspiration and guidance. It was more than that. The US frequently worked, often behind the scenes, to support efforts to strengthen democratic institutions.
America’s democracy will survive Trump’s assault. He will leave office one way or another. But the damage he has done to America’s standing in the world will linger, and the consequences will be felt by people far beyond US shores. Tragically, the impact will also hurt all those people around the world who have grown to count on help from the US.
Twenty years ago, when George W. Bush was running for president against Al Gore, he argued that the United States needed to become a more humble nation. The claim reflected what he saw as a flaw in the national character. Bush argued that humility would pair well with America’s strength and success. As it turned out, partly because of the 9/11 terror attacks and his disastrous war against Iraq, Bush failed miserably at turning the country into a humble nation. Ironically, it is Trump, perhaps the least humble man ever to strut the world, who has inadvertently achieved it. Except that what Trump achieved is not so much humility as humiliation. America remains strong, stronger than any other nation. But it will have to walk more humbly now.
The erosion of democratic institutions caused by Trump and by every one of his Republican and right-wing media accomplices is weakening the United States. It has already sapped its moral authority. Restoring it, first by defeating his assault on US democracy, will be a key job for the next administration.
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To be fair, not everyone admired the United States, always a flawed country that perennially failed at living up to its ideals, especially when it comes to equality and justice. But it’s hard to remember a time when the US was the object of pity, as it is now, the center of the global pandemic, its most fundamental institution, democracy, under attack from none other than the president.
In the end, the pandemic will be conquered, and Americans’ struggles to save their democracy from a man who has no respect for it, will succeed. After this battle is won, Americans’ determination to defend their democracy could end up again becoming an inspiration to others around the world. Recovering from this unhappy chapter will be the beginning of regaining respect around the world.