“Has ambition so eclipsed principle?” A pertinent, and increasingly unfathomable, question currently being asked by many, both within the U.S. political system and without. President Trump’s attempts to subvert the U.S. election result have been, over the weeks since November 3rd, an unparalleled exhibition of the old adage: if you say something enough times, you (and indeed, others) might just start to believe it.
Trump’s unfounded, and repeatedly dismissed, claims of election fraud have transfixed the world, and given American democracy perhaps its greatest trial of the past 150 years. The deadly attack on the Capitol Building by pro-Trump protesters on January 6th, as members of both Congressional houses sat to certify Biden’s win, prompted outrage from across the political spectrum. President Trump’s tenure will now be remembered for his defence of his “people,” and the dishonour which he has now brought upon both the office of the President and American democracy as a whole. Perceived by many as the last futile attempt of a “loser” President and his fearful – or 2024-thinking – lackeys, the schisms of American politics are less alarming in their potential consequences than their potential effect on world democracy and the advancement of human rights.
This act was the climax of Trumpist frustration, which has been building since his loss in the November election. The mob attack – which officials on both sides of the aisle have considered as a “coup attempt” – was fuelled by Trump’s continual insistence of a stolen election. These unsubstantiated, and repeatedly repudiated claims have taken hold of the minds of many core Trump supporters; those present at the Capitol were only a fanatic few of the total number of believers. Many on both sides of the aisle were quick to condemn the outgoing President, with several prominent Republicans breaking their silence or rescinding their previous support for Trump, claiming both he and his supporters had gone “beyond the pale.” That it took a physical attack on the democratic centre of the U.S. to bring these Republicans to this view is derisory; Trump crossed his Rubicon long before he took office. His bombastic rhetoric of the past five years was signal enough of his fanatical support; an assault on the institution of democracy was always a nightmarish possibility.
The attack followed hotly on the footsteps of an audio recording released the previous weekend, of a phone conversation between President Trump and the Georgia Secretary of State, Brad Raffensberger, in which Trump attempted to persuade the Republican election official that he had in fact won the state. The Washington Post released a full audio leak of the conversation, in which the President is heard clearly saying “All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes [one more than Biden’s winning difference in Georgia of 11,779], which is one more than we have. Because we won the state.” These clear violations of federal law are in keeping with many of Trump’s other acts in office. Any other President would have been successfully impeached far before we reached the events of last week. As Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) voiced aloud the question of principle in his reproach of fellow Republican, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who led Senate efforts to oppose the certification of the election results by Congress, he voiced an eerie foreshadowing of the subsequent attack on the Capitol: “I could never have imagined seeing these things in the greatest democracy in the world.” It remains to be seen if this act will be the last of his dramatic four years as President; it seems unlikely that, having so far cared nothing about the damage he wreaks on America’s Presidency and democracy, he will go any quieter than he came in.
As the months lengthen after the 20th of January, it can be expected that Trump will not give up the fight; his unwillingness to condemn his fanatical supporters is superseded only by his unwillingness to accept defeat. While American democracy is robust enough to survive this assault, the illegality of Trump’s actions, and his persistent attempts to undermine fundamental aspects of the democratic process – namely, the will of the people – will have broader ramifications in the international arena. Biden’s first year in office will thus be coloured by the havoc of his predecessor, and perhaps nowhere more so – and nowhere presently more unobserved – than in the field of international human rights. The possibility of a coup against the United States, orchestrated by the President himself, strikes at the heart of American democracy as an institution and as a world emblem. Irrespective of Trump’s actual role in inciting the mob, the perception is a damning one and will have a catastrophic effect on the U.S. foreign agenda in the coming years.
U.S. dominance over the international scene as the self-styled ‘guardian of democracy’ has lasted for much of the past 60 years. Despite its own demons – a history of racial discrimination, slavery, and abuses against Indigenous peoples, as well as the 4 million disenfranchised citizens in U.S. Territories such as Puerto Rico and Guam – the U.S. has proven the most consistent diplomatic muscle deployed in defence of international human rights. Its role in the past half-century, championing post-war self-determination and decolonization, promoting democratic reconstruction in Europe, is now beginning to fade from living memory, and exists far from the realities of President Trump, being rather the “Great America” he has championed for a return to.
Less distant is the United States’ emergence as a leader in multilateral human rights and humanitarian initiatives in Somalia, Sudan, Haiti, Bosnia, and Northern Ireland, and yet these were dominated and championed by predecessors whom Trump reviled: Clinton, G.W. Bush, and Obama. Trump’s current attempts to destabilize America’s democratic institutions put the U.S.’s clout as the humanitarian champion at considerable risk; how can the U.S. promote expansions of democracy (particularly democracy bred in its own image) or trumpet free elections when such abuses occur so obviously in its own capital?
Biden’s administration must take rapid steps to prevent the deterioration of America’s democratic and rights-championing image. In order to have an unimpeachable mandate to enact and promote human rights abroad, the U.S. must enact a considerable raft of domestic and foreign programmes. Domestic recognition is key to reshaping America’s damaged reputation. Human Rights Watch published in November its “12 Foreign Policy Priorities for the Next Administration”, among which would see the strengthening of sexual and reproductive rights, protection of migrants and asylum seekers, and a wholesale re-examination of the use of force by police and other security agents, as highlighted by the Black Lives Matter Protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year. A reconciliation with America’s past would go a long way to restoring U.S. credibility as the world leader in human rights.
Fortunately, the incoming Administration appears to be aware of the problem. The announcements of new National Security Council postings include various Obama-era heavyweights, including Elizabeth Cameron, who will be returning as senior director for global health security and biodefense – a role which had been eliminated during Trump’s tenure. While Biden’s appointment of Shanthi Kalathil, the current director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy, as coordinator for democracy and human rights highlights a reaffirmed commitment to those ideals, his appointments at the Department of Justice reflect the need for strengthening the integrity of that body in its protection of all American citizens. As the Build Back Better campaign stated, the key domestic aims are “de-politicizing and rooting out systemic racism from our laws, restoring voting rights, prosecuting hate crimes, [and] eliminating racial disparities in sentencing.” Reaffirming these domestic rights is a key building block to restoring international respect for U.S. humanitarianism abroad.
However, while Biden’s picks of Cameron and Kalathil are a promising indication of Biden’s foreign aims, more robust assertions need to be made to assuage the damage done by Trump. Ongoing conflicts – particularly those which have seen previous U.S. involvement, such as in Libya, will need reappraising in this new light; while Trump largely pulled out of the country during the last four years, there remains hope in the region that Biden will re-involve the U.S. in some supportive manner. Amid a global pandemic, the role which the U.S. can play as a global leader – in more than just their appalling COVID statistics – is even more important. The U.S. has the infrastructure capable of speeding up vaccinations and treatment worldwide. Providing such assistance to struggling nations as a gesture of goodwill could have a considerable impact on future attempts to improve democracy and human rights in those countries. However, such assistance should not be held hostage for any promise of expanding rights; the right to life comes first and foremost in the current climate. The pandemic should not become simply another bargaining chip to be used to bully smaller nations.
When the Biden Administration comes to power, it will have the united trifecta of American democracy at its fingertips. We can only hope that it utilizes this for the promotion and defence of human rights everywhere, not the United States alone.
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