We have promoted democracy in our movies and books. We speak of democracy in our speeches and lectures. We even sing about democracy, from sea to shining sea, in our national songs. We have entire government bureaus devoted to thinking about how we can help other countries become and remain democratic. We fund institutions that do the same.
And yet by far the most important weapon that the United States of America has ever wielded—in defense of democracy, in defense of political liberty, in defense of universal rights, in defense of the rule of law—was the power of example. In the end, it wasn’t our words, our songs, our diplomacy, or even our money or our military power that mattered. It was rather the things we had achieved: the two and a half centuries of peaceful transitions of power, the slow but massive expansion of the franchise, and the long, seemingly solid traditions of civilized debate.
In 1945, the nations of what had been Nazi-occupied Western Europe chose to become democracies, partly because they aspired to resemble their liberators. In 1989, the nations of what had been Communist-occupied Eastern Europe also chose to become democracies, partly because they too wanted to join the great, prosperous, freedom-loving, American-led democratic alliance. A huge variety of countries all across Asia, Africa, and South America have also chosen democracy over the past several decades, at least partly because they wanted to be like us, because they saw a path to the peaceful resolution of conflict in imitating us, because they saw a way to resolve their own disputes just like we did, using elections and debate instead of violence.
During this period, many American politicians and diplomats mistakenly imagined that it was their clever words or deeds that persuaded others to join what eventually became a very broad, international democratic alliance. But they were wrong. It was not them; it was us—our example.
Over the past four years, that example has been badly damaged. We elected a president who refused to recognize the democratic process. We stood by while some members of Donald Trump’s party cynically colluded with him, helping him break laws and rules designed to restrain him. We indulged his cheerleading “media”—professional liars who pretended to believe the president’s stories, including his invented claims of massive voter fraud. Then came the denouement: an awkward, cack-handed invasion of the Capitol by the president’s supporters, some dressed in strange costumes, others sporting Nazi symbols or waving Confederate flags. They achieved the president’s goal: They brought the official certification of the Electoral College vote to a halt. House and Senate members and Vice President Mike Pence were escorted out of the legislative chambers. Their staff members were told to shelter in place. A woman was shot to death.
There is no way to overstate the significance of this moment, no way to ignore the power of the message that these events send to both the friends and the enemies of democracy, everywhere. The images from Washington that are going out around the world are far more damaging to America’s reputation as a stable democracy than the images of young people protesting the Vietnam War several decades ago, and they are far more disturbing to outsiders than the riots and protests of last summer. Unlike so many other disturbances over the years, the events at the Capitol yesterday did not represent a policy dispute, a disagreement about a foreign war or the behavior of police. They were part of an argument over the validity of democracy itself: A violent mob declared that it should decide who becomes the next president, and Trump encouraged its members. So did his allies in Congress, and so did the far-right propagandists who support him. For a few hours, they prevailed.
America’s friends were horrified. In the immediate aftermath of the storming of the Capitol, the secretary-general of NATO and the British prime minister both condemned what they were watching on television. So did the Danish prime minister, the Swedish foreign minister, the Israeli defense minister, the president of Chile, and a host of other leaders. So close do these countries feel to American democracy that they took the scenes personally, as if they were challenges to their own political systems: “The attacks by fanatical Trump supporters on the Capitol hurt every friend of the USA,” wrote one German politician.
America’s enemies said less but surely enjoyed the images more. Yesterday morning, after all, the Chinese government arrested the leaders of the democracy movement in Hong Kong. In 2020, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who did so much to put Donald Trump in the White House, was accused of poisoning his most important political opponent, Alexei Navalny. In recent memory, the Saudi crown prince ordered the gruesome murder of a journalist who was one of his most prominent critics; Iranian, Belarusian, and Venezuelan leaders regularly beat and imprison dissidents in their countries.
After the riot at the Capitol, all of them will feel more confident, more secure in their positions. They use violence to prevent peaceful debate and peaceful transfers of power; now they have observed that the American president does too. Trump has not ordered the murder of his enemies. But now nobody can be sure of what he might do in order to maintain power. Schadenfreude will be the dominant emotion in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Caracas, and Riyadh. The leaders of those cities—men sitting in well-appointed palaces, surrounded by security guards—will enjoy the scenes from Washington, relishing the sight of the U.S. brought so low.
Americans are not the ones who will suffer most from the terrible damage that Trump and his enablers have done to the power of America’s example, to America’s reputation, or, more important, to the reputation of democracy itself. The callow insurrectionists who thought it would be amusing to break into the debating chambers might go to jail, but they will not pay any real price; neither will the conspiracy theorists who believed the president’s lies and flocked to Washington to act them out. Instead, the true cost will be borne by those other residents of Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Caracas, and Riyadh—the dissidents and the opponents, the would-be democrats who plan, organize, protest, and suffer, sacrificing their time and in some cases their life just because they want the right to vote, to live in a state governed by the rule of law, and to enjoy the things that Americans take for granted, and that Trump doesn’t value at all.
After yesterday, they will have one less source of hope, once less ally they can rely upon. The power of America’s example will be dimmer than it once was; American arguments will be harder to hear. American calls for democracy can be thrown back with scorn: You don’t believe in it anymore, so why should we? So much has been carelessly thrown away by this president; so much has been thoughtlessly abandoned; so many hard-won friendships and alliances have been forgotten by Trump, and by his enablers in the Senate, the Cabinet, and the far-right press. They have so little understanding of democracy’s true value—and they never will.