The Light Failed

Donald Trump’s unprecedented coup attempt will have extremely serious consequences for the image of the United States

As president, Donald Trump has repeatedly shown his aversion to institutions and the rules of democracy. Since the beginning of his political career, instead of relying on the best American ideals — democracy, the rule of law, equal opportunities and justice — he incited tribal instincts of hatred and contempt for political adversaries.

In 2011, he started building his position by questioning the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s election as U.S. president. Ten years later, history has come full circle. This time as the president, Trump is again questioning the legitimacy of the election. First, right before the Georgia Senate runoff during the first days of January, he attempted to convince the Georgia secretary of state to rig the election results, and then he pressured Vice President Mike Pence to reject electoral votes cast for Joe Biden. This culminated in the call on his supporters to storm the Capitol building and reverse the election result by force. Millions of people around the world rubbed their eyes in astonishment, watching the images of a coup that so far had only been reserved for extremely unstable democracies.

For more than 200 years — since the end of the 18th century — a peaceful transition of power has been one of the pillars of American democracy. George Washington and his successors didn’t want to resemble European monarchs; they were guided by the idea of a republic, in which a nation is a sovereign body, while a person temporarily elected to the highest post is its servant. A servant who, after having served his term, will transfer power to his successor. The term limit aimed to protect the young republic from the long-lasting power struggles so common in Europe, and the idea of the peaceful transfer of power was meant to be the embodiment of the liberal belief of the Founding Fathers that a man is capable of self-improvement and mastery over his lust for power. This belief survived the turmoil that swept over the political scene of the first half of the 19th century, then the Civil War, and then the 150 years that were marked not only by the development of and unlimited faith in the uniqueness of America, but also by numerous crises and wars.

During this time, America has grown to such epic proportions that it could actively promote its ideals of democracy, equality and the rule of law almost all over the world. For decades, it was like a lighthouse that attracted wanderers from all over the world. America believed itself, and rightly so, to be the famous “city upon a hill” whose splendor attracts other countries wanting to bask in it. During the Cold War, the American message about the importance of democracy and human rights broke through the shell of communist ideology and reached the people who then helped to bring about a change in the Soviet bloc. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many countries could, at last, get a taste of life that reflected American ideals. The world was supposed to move only in one, liberal and democratic, direction.

But in the coming years, serious cracks appeared in the image of America. Systemic inequalities, financial crises and successive unlawful wars have added to the growing antipathy toward global American presence. Even under such circumstances, the soft power of the U.S., as well as the grandeur and the stability of its democratic institutions, sustained the conviction about the uniqueness of America and the beneficial influence of its democracy among many of the inhabitants of Asia, Africa and Europe. Even Trump’s coming to power and his antics were seen in many places around the world as a temporary, four-year anomaly.

Though Trump’s rule in fact ends with the end of his term, this unprecedented attempt at a coup will ultimately bury America’s reputation as the cradle of freedom and democracy. In their most recent book, “The Light That Failed,” Stephen Holmes and Ivan Krastev put forth a thesis that a considerable part of Europe has been turning its back on Western liberalism because for too long it has been forced to imitate foreign models. Even if they are right, it should be acknowledged that, despite a nationalistic turn in Poland or in Hungary, in many countries of the world the myth of America as a depository of democratic ideals and a benchmark for political matters has survived. The light of liberalism might have failed, but the light of America as “the better world” was still flickering in many places on Earth.

Now it will fail as well. America will no longer be a model for people aspiring to freedom. She can still be a military leader; she can form new alliances. She can build a coalition to thwart China’s growing power. She can boost trade with new countries. But rebuilding the reputation of the country that sets an example for others, where certain things are unimaginable, whose splendor reaches the furthest corners of the globe — if at all possible — will take decades.

That one day, by inciting the crowds to attack the Capitol, Trump dealt America one of the most serious blows in its modern history.

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