What The U.S. Election Meltdown Looks Like
Nearly three weeks after a presidential election plagued by long lines and even longer ballot-counting delays, President Donald Trump still hasn’t conceded the race to Joe Biden, his administration is refusing to help with an orderly transition and his supporters are pulling every lever they can to drag out, block or even overturn the results.
Never before has the basic machinery of U.S. democracy looked so dysfunctional. And the rest of the world has been watching almost as closely as Americans themselves.
The United States has set itself up as a global model for democratic elections, impressing many people with the longstanding stability of its system, but also fostering some annoyance with its high-handed efforts to promote its own style of democracy worldwide.
Now, with its system in a public meltdown under the stress of its own presidential election, how do people overseas see what’s happening here? And how will it affect America’s standing going forward? We asked writers from a range of countries, either watching from overseas or from their jobs in the US, what they thought of this recent election, and how it made their fellow-citizens feel about the United States.
Some described a sense of comeuppance, as the self-appointed democratic beacon turned out to be flawed after all; others were disappointed to watch their own autocrats or regional strongmen already capitalizing on the US’s domestic chaos. European allies, though surprised at the confusion, are largely taking it in stride as they await a better relationship with the Biden administration. China and Russia, officially, couldn’t be happier. And the former British ambassador asks what many Americans were asking just a couple of weeks ago: Why can’t the United States just hire more ballot counters? Their responses are below.
Negar Mortazavi is a journalist and political commentator based in Washington, D.C. She is a columnist for The Independent and host of the Iran Podcast.
Because of the crippling sanctions that have devastated the Iranian economy, U.S. foreign policy has an enormous impact on the lives of Iranians; more than it has on Americans themselves. One tweet about Iran from Donald Trump impacts the Iranian market and the value of its currency. For that reason, Iranians have been following U.S. politics very closely. Ordinary Iranians now know the number of electoral votes in Wisconsin and Michigan, and the latest status of counts in Arizona and Georgia. And this election, like Trump’s presidency itself, has been shocking to many Iranians who have followed U.S. politics over the years.
Iranians have been making fun of every unusual event in this election with jokes and memes, while impatiently waiting for the outcome. Ruhollah Nakhaee, an Iranian journalist in Tehran, tells me that the Iranian state TV is having fun with images of chaos in the United States, and the Ahmadinejad camp is supporting Trump and repeating his conspiracies about election fraud. Abdolreza Davari, former advisor to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been a vocal supporter of Trump on social media and in interviews on diaspora television channels, echoing Trump’s claims of election fraud and praising Trump for standing up to the “Satan of globalism.”
Trump’s uncommon rhetoric against his rivals, his attacks on the media and his allegations of fraud have damaged the image of the United States around the world. Iranians are not unfamiliar with this kind of politics, as they have had their own share of populism over the decades. But seeing the same trends happen in the United States has been a big surprise. Many Iranians compare Donald Trump to former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, both in rhetoric and in action, and now in their handling of their re-election.
In 2009, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the incumbent president and also in charge of holding the presidential election. He rigged the election in his own favor, which prompted massive protests against him across Iran that lasted for months. Dozens of protesters were killed, hundreds were arrested and Ahmadinejad’s election rivals were ultimately put under house arrest. Ahmadinejad remained president for a second term.
Back then, the United States condemned irregularities in the 2009 election. Now Iranians keep asking if a similar situation is happening in the United States, as Donald Trump refuses to concede and is trying to use everything in his power to remain in the White House. The situation is of course very different, since Trump is not in charge of holding elections in the United States and cannot put his rival under house arrest. Nevertheless, his refusal to respect the democratic process or accept defeat has diminished the credibility of the United States to weigh in on elections in other countries.
‘Guys, you’re a rich country; can’t you just employ a few more ballot counters?’
BY LORD KIM DARROCH
Lord Kim Darroch served as the British Ambassador to the United States (2016–2019). Prior to Washington, he was National Security Adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron (2012–2015). He is the author of Collateral Damage: Britain, America and Europe in the Age of Trump.
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The British public never took to Donald Trump. A recent YouGov poll reported that a mere 15 percent of them thought positively about him, while 74 percent thought negatively about him. In this, Trump was a mirror image of the wildly popular Barack Obama (76 percent positive, 11 percent negative); and even rated a touch behind one Vladimir Putin ( 16 percent positive, 68 percent negative). And the dislike took public form: In the huge demonstrations accompanying Trump’s visits to the United Kingdom; in the endless mockery from cartoonists, satirists and comedians; and in the evident reluctance of most of Britain’s political classes, including, belatedly, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, to appear too close to him.
So how were the U.S. elections seen over here? American politics are so much more glamorous than the British version. British election campaigns are brief — six weeks or so — and tend towards the gray: politicians addressing a few dozen punters in a shopping mall, or canvassing door-to-door in drab, rainswept, housing estates. American elections are technicolor marathons: the soap-opera reality show of the primary season, sweeping “from sea to shining sea”; the hoopla of the Conventions; and the endlessly recycled “gotcha” moments of the presidential debates. And nowhere is the contrast more marked than on voting day itself. In the United Kingdom, a few hundred local government figures get their Andy Warhol fifteen minutes of fame announcing results in dusty community halls; in America the TV networks carry the running totals of votes until the dramatic moment when they “call” a state for one candidate or the other.
There was, however, one big difference this time around. Election Day turned into Election Week — and more. Even our most remote constituencies, like the Scottish Islands, declare results within about 24 hours. But those of us gripped by these U.S. elections found ourselves trapped in Groundhog Day: switching on the TV every morning to find that Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Arizona were perpetually “too close to call.” The TV stations eventually called Georgia for Biden on November 14, 11 days after the vote. Guys, you’re a rich country; can’t you just employ a few more ballot counters?
But there was a sideshow to this tediously slow walk to the Biden victory, in the form of the president’s reaction. This most unpredictable of Presidents for once did exactly as expected: He proved to be the world’s worst loser. Americans should be in no doubt about how bad this looks to allies, friends and admirers around the world; the more so given how many senior Republicans have provided cover for the President. It makes the world’s only superpower seem irretrievably divided, and American democracy, once a model, look broken.
Is the damage permanent? No, it doesn’t have to be. Joe Biden, a transparently decent man, is promising a reset. If he can quickly take the United States back into the Paris Climate Change Accord, reaffirm U.S. commitment to NATO, and rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, he will both revive multilateralism and provide some reassurance to European public opinion. But though this will be important, it may not be sufficient. Over on this side of the Atlantic, we have noticed that, notwithstanding the experience of almost four years of Trump in office, more than 70,000,000 Americans voted to give him a second term; that more than 80 percent of Republican voters think that the election was rigged; and that, according to multiple media reports, Trump is discussing a run again in 2024. So it might just take a little longer than four years of President Biden to restore America’s reputation as the strongest, staunchest and most dependable of allies.
Meanwhile, here in the United Kingdom, times may also be a-changin’. A recent opinion poll reported that the majority of the British public — 54 percent to 46 percent — now think Brexit was a mistake. Too late: It’s done. But the future relationship with the EU has still to be decided. The negotiations are in the final stretch, with both options, a constructive free trading future or an acrimonious and economically ruinous no-deal, still possible. In the last few days, two “hard Brexit”-supporting senior advisers of the prime minister, Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, have made sudden, enforced, exits from №10. Just coincidence? Or evidence, as some are speculating, of a cleansing Bidenesque wind sweeping westwards across the Atlantic, bringing moderation and compromise in place of confrontation and culture wars? As President Trump was fond of saying, “Let’s see what happens.”
‘A Kenyan election in the United States is not something one sees every day’
BY PATRICK GATHARA
Patrick Gathara is a strategic communications consultant, writer and award-winning political cartoonist in Kenya.
From Kenya, the 2020 election in the United States seemed both familiar and strange. Familiar because it looked very much like the last two Kenyan presidential elections, in 2013 and 2017, which witnessed problematic and delayed vote counts, allegations of rigging and were both eventually decided by the Supreme Court (the first was upheld and the second was annulled). It was strange for the same reason it seemed familiar. A Kenyan election in the United States is not something one sees every day.
It is important to make a distinction here: by Kenyan election, I do not mean an African election. Many African countries hold much better polls than either Kenya or the United States. It is however undeniable that my country has distinguished itself in its bizarre inability to count particular votes, specifically those cast for president (the syndrome does not seem to affect lower races).
The United States, on the other hand, has been marketed to us since childhood as the model democracy, the shining city on a hill. And it is true that many of us did drink the Kool-Aid. Despite its many hypocrisies abroad — the United States was the country that loudly supported my generation’s struggle against autocracy in the 1990s but had also helped prop up murderous dictatorships across the African continent — at home, it was believed to be largely accountable to its citizens.
Donald Trump’s shock win in 2016 amid allegations of Russian interference, followed by four norm-busting years where the White House became associated with nepotism, corruption, the public embrace of white supremacy and a lack of accountability, severely undermined the notion of America as a paragon of democratic governance. At the same time, the continuing rise of China and, more locally, Rwanda, seemed to suggest better models.
2020 has delivered the coup de grace. There are positives — America has not dissolved into violence despite the dispute. Still, the attempt by Trump to cling on to power despite losing the election by most counts, his discrediting of the electoral system, and the prospect, however remote, that the Republicans may still find a way to overturn the election at the Electoral College, have turned the United States into a laughing stock across the continent.
It is a bittersweet moment. On the one hand, an entitled, boastful, self-righteous bully is getting his comeuppance. On the other, this will do real damage to those who look to the United States to support them in their own democratic struggles. Already, in countries like Tanzania, Guinea and Cote D’Ivoire, autocrats have basically ignored concerned statements from the U.S. State Department. Joe Biden may try to re-establish U.S. democratic hegemony with his proposed Summit for Democracy, but there’s probably no going back to the status quo. The only path left is one where the United States demonstrates it can take the medicine it has long prescribed to others — democratic reform.
‘Broadcasters delivered shocking images of long lines wrapped around polling stations where masks and sanitizer were scant’
BY CATHERINE KIM
Catherine Kim is an editorial intern at Politico Magazine.
A growing number of South Koreans see the United States as a country past its glory days due to Donald Trump’s presidency. It’s evident in how the voting in the U.S. primaries was portrayed in Korea: Broadcasters delivered shocking images of long lines wrapped around polling stations where masks and sanitizer were scant. The contrast was particularly striking to South Koreans who had just voted in their April national election, including me. Lines moved quickly. The government checked temperatures at the entrance, then handed out hand sanitizer and plastic gloves. No sparks in cases could be detected afterward in a country that has been hailed throughout the pandemic for its contact-tracing efforts.
And the election itself has made some South Koreans question whether the United States is truly a democracy. Koreans themselves use a popular vote. It’s simply unfathomable for many of them to think that some people’s votes outweigh others or that a candidate can win the popular vote and still lose. It’s why the results of 2016 were shocking to many, and explains the confusion some felt with the United States’ fixation on a few states. Following Election Day, newspapers ran headlines like “The surprising election system that make you wonder ‘Is the U.S. actually a democratic country?’” and “’Winner takes all’: the U.S.’s weird democracy,” questioning the uncertainty surrounding the race despite Biden’s lead in overall votes.
The president’s rampant claims of voter fraud and refusal to concede are now being seen as an act of desperation, and one that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Many newspapers have already moved on to highlighting the potential of a strong U.S.-South Korea alliance under Joe Biden. Biden himself got a start on that when he launched a first-of-its-kind column in Yonhap News Agency — the AP of South Korea — on October 30. “Words matter — and a president’s words matter even more,” he wrote in one column. “As President, I’ll stand with South Korea, strengthening our alliance to safeguard peace in East Asia and beyond, rather than extorting Seoul with reckless threats to remove our troops.” He ended the column with “Katchi Kapshida,” the slogan for the U.S.-South Korea military alliance that means “We go together” in English. Partly as a result, the president-elect is already a favorite among many who are tired of Trump, who has bashed the country for its military spending.
If anything, the U.S. election will likely be another reason for Koreans to show support for their own government, which has dealt with both the pandemic and elections far better than the United States. Social trust in public institutions has risen in the country over the past few months for these very reasons, despite Koreans being notoriously distrusting of their government. The same cannot be said for the U.S.
‘My father spent hours with me on the phone theorizing whether Philly suburban votes would be enough to land Biden the victory’
BY MAXIM ERISTAVI
Maxim Eristavi is a Ukraine-based journalist and the founder of Hromadske International, an internet TV station.
I come from a part of Europe that is the most invested in American politics and election cycles. It always astonishes me how average Eastern Europeans can casually jump into debates about politics across the Atlantic, yet are barely aware of what’s happening in their own backyard.
Take my dad, a truck driver from eastern Ukraine. While America counted the votes in presidential elections, he spent hours with me on the phone theorizing whether Philly suburban votes and the Wisconsin flip would be enough to land Biden the victory. Just a week before that, my dad was utterly uninvested in who was running for city council in the Ukrainian local elections.
But the 2020 election campaign in the U.S. was a much-needed reality check for us. Some conclusions were dark. Looking at America openly playing with authoritarianism made us realize that no democracy is immune to collapse. Watching severe polarization in the United States and seeing the same happening in our region made us realize that we face a much bigger global challenge than just bridging a national divide.
But there were upsides, too. Americans overcoming voter suppression and taking time to count all the votes resonated with so many Eastern Europeans who still struggle to defend their votes [. Booting out an autocratic-leaning demagogue through a peaceful election resonated, too. There are several local tyrants on whom we wish the same fate.
In Eastern Europe, we keep naming our streets after American politicians for a reason. Having the last-standing colonial empire armed with nukes as a neighbor is a source of constant existential fear. When Moscow invades or interferes with former Russian colonies, the show of solidarity from the rest of Europe often comes too late or doesn’t come at all. Before Trump, United States would fill that gap. After a four-year break, we would like to welcome that ally back, but on an equal par this time. These elections proved that the frontlines of European democracy are not so much different from the United States, after all.
‘Trump’s behavior in the face of defeat is a gift to bad actors in the region’
BY AMIR TIBON
Amir Tibon is U.S. news editor for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, and until recently the paper’s correspondent in Washington.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated Biden on November 8 and emphasized the fact that he and Biden have known each other for decades. He stopped short of referring to Biden as “president-elect” at the time, probably out of fear of angering Trump, who still has two months left in the Oval Office. But Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, who is Netanyahu’s closest adviser, publicly spoke on Monday of a future “Biden administration” as a given fact — ignoring Trump’s insistence that he, not Biden, had won the election.
Sadly, Trump’s denial of the election results, and his attack on the integrity of the election, could ultimately become a larger feature of his legacy in our part of the world than any policy decisions he made as president. His behavior in the face of defeat is a gift to bad actors in the region, such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the mullahs in Tehran, who have their own history of undermining and even overturning elections results that threatened their hold on power. However, it has been encouraging to see at least some Republicans, such as President George W. Bush and Senator Mitt Romney, acknowledge Biden’s victory and call for an orderly transfer of power. If American democracy will successfully overcome this current crisis, it will send a clear message all over the world — including in the Middle East.
Donald Trump will be remembered by most Israelis as a friendly and supportive president, who moved the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and paved the way for Israel to sign normalization accords with several Arab countries. But even among Israelis who were saddened by his loss, there isn’t a great sense of fear with regard to the incoming Joe Biden administration. Biden is seen as a moderate Democrat with a long history of support for Israel, and Israelis who follow the news more closely are also aware of the fact that Republicans had a successful election in Congress, increasing the likelihood that Biden, in a divided Washington, will have to govern from the center.
‘Some surely gloated over the American “beacon of democracy” failing to manage a democratic election.’
BY MARIA LIPMAN
Maria Lipman is senior associate at Program on New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia at George Washington University.
The 2020 presidential election has hardly been a turning point in the perception of the United States in Russia, where 70 percent consider the U.S. their country’s worst enemy. The Russian people’s animosity toward the United States may be the result of Kremlin propaganda, but this propaganda falls on fertile ground. Public responsiveness to the Kremlin’s position on the United States is sharply different from the late Cold War perception, when the United States had great appeal for millions in the Soviet Union, despite condemnations of America by Communist propaganda.
The infatuation with America that peaked during Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika gradually gave way to resentment, as the U.S., now the sole superpower, pursued policies, such as NATO enlargement or the bombing of Yugoslavia, in full disregard of Russia’s interests and concerns. The 2014 annexation of Crimea was a turning point: As the West condemned and punished Russia for the very act that made its people feel strong and proud, Russians overwhelmingly shared the Kremlin’s anti-American sentiment. During the Trump presidency, when the U.S. mainstream media engaged in persistent Russia-bashing and in digging up “secret schemes” aimed at installing a “Kremlin’s candidate” in the White House and undermining American democracy, America was progressively losing its luster, even among westernized and liberal-minded Russians. “The way the American press writes about the topic, it’s like they’ve lost their heads,” one Russian journalist