A bad example until the very end: Trump’s refusal to concede defeat is sending shock waves around the world

He may have lost the vote, but Trump’s delegitimising of the electoral process could act as an inspiration to others, reports Borzou Daragahi

Saturday 14 November 2020 12:50 GMT
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Leaving, but not quietly. President Donald Trump looks on to supporters after leaving the Trump National golf club in Sterling, Va
Leaving, but not quietly. President Donald Trump looks on to supporters after leaving the Trump National golf club in Sterling, Va (AP)

Donald Trump’s refusal to concede in the 2020 presidential elections is prompting concern across the world, with officials in several countries voicing worry over the consequences of the outgoing president’s unsubstantiated insistence that fraud marred a vote praised by international observers.

The election last week gave Democrat Joe Biden a resounding victory in both the popular vote as well as the electoral college, which ultimately decides the winner of US presidential race. But because unprecedented millions of mailed ballots were counted late, Mr Trump showed early election day leads which were eroded. Mr Trump and his supporters baselessly claim the election was stolen, citing no evidence.  

The soon-to-be ex-president and many of his Republican Party acolytes have refused to concede, or offer congratulations, or even allow steps to begin a transfer of authority. Pressed by reporters on whether the Trump administration was preparing to work with the Biden team to ensure a smooth handover of power, secretary of state Mike Pompeo startled diplomats by insisting “there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration”.

In general, America’s oldest allies are relieved that Mr Trump lost the vote and they won’t have to deal with his disruptive administration for four more years. “It was almost expected that he would rebuke the narrative that he lost,” said Julian Mueller-Kaler, a political scientist specialising in the Americas at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “Even Fox News and his other allies are starting to abandon him. The 2020 elections are a sign that America’s democratic institutions still work, at least this time around”.

But western officials including key Nato partners are also growing nervous over the rocky transition, especially after Mr Trump on Monday fired defence secretary Mark Esper and much of the civilian leadership at the Pentagon and replaced them with acolytes. “Esper’s termination is definitely raising the temperature,” said one western European official.

The alarm among allies has been matched by glee among US rivals such as Iran or Russia, which are gloating over the debacle in America. The front page illustration on one hardline Iranian newspaper this week showed a bloodied Uncle Sam, sawed in half from head to toe.  

“Our adversaries are clearly watching,” Senator Chris Murphy told CNN on Tuesday. “It could provide an opening for countries like Russia, China, Turkey or North Korea to make moves during the interregnum because of their belief the president won’t respond. It’s a dangerous time.”

On Thursday The Elders, a global group of former senior officials and international figures founded by former South African leader Nelson Mandela, warned Mr Trump’s refusal to peacefully hand over power was imperilling US democracy and potentially inspiring “authoritarian rulers and malign actors” across the world.  

“It is shocking to have to raise concerns about US democratic processes as The Elders have previously commented on volatile and undemocratic situations in states such as Kenya, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe,” Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and chairperson of The Elders, said in a statement. “President Trump’s refusal thus far to facilitate a smooth transition weakens democratic values.”

U.S. President Donald Trump departs after placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider as he attends a Veterans Day observance in the rain at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., November 11, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
U.S. President Donald Trump departs after placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider as he attends a Veterans Day observance in the rain at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., November 11, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria (Reuters)

Both the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Organisation for American States, major multilateral entities, deployed observers for the vote and praised the work of election workers processing more than 150 million votes during a global pandemic.

Some analysts have speculated that Mr Trump and his fellow Republicans are questioning the vote in cynical gambits to raise money to pay off campaign debts, launch a rightwing television channel or mobilise voters for key 5 January Senate runoff votes in the American state of Georgia.  

But Mr Trump’s refusal to concede defeat could have consequences overseas. It has raised pressure on democratically elected leaders in shaky democracies. In Ukraine, for example, President Volodymyr Zelensky has come under fire for having congratulated Mr Biden before Mr Trump conceded.  

Prime minister Boris Johnson took heat Wednesday for his close ties with Mr Trump after describing his recent conversation with Mr Biden.  

“Does the prime minister have any advice now for his erstwhile best friend, President Trump, whose continuing refusal to accept the results is both embarrassing for him and dangerous for American democracy?” Labour’s Angela Eagle asked him.  

A man in Gaza walks past an anti-Trump mural
A man in Gaza walks past an anti-Trump mural (EPA)

“It is one more step in delegitimising not just the incoming Biden administration but democracy in general,” former president Barack Obama has told the television network CBS in an interview to be aired on Sunday.  

US diplomats and human rights advocates are also concerned that Mr Trump’s questioning of a vote he lost could undermine their efforts to bolster democratic processes and practices abroad; his antics are precisely those Americans have warned against in close elections in places like Afghanistan.  

“We’ve already seen during his presidency the way his discrediting of democratic norms was held up by authoritarians around the world,” said Anna Luhrmann, a professor of political science at Sweden’s Gothenburg University and the lead researcher on a massive recent project documenting rising authoritarianism in the US and worldwide.  

“I could imagine that these kinds of people will copy Trump’s strategy of delegitimising the electoral process at any cost,” she said. “Given the influence that Trump has had on authoritarian leaders around the world, I could totally see they would try to follow his example in trying to discredit elections. Then we’re really in trouble.”

Trump supporters on the street this week
Trump supporters on the street this week (AFP/Getty)

In a possible effort to reassure allies, Mr Pompeo is to embark on a world tour that includes visits to France, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Georgia on Monday. One French official said he would be received coolly. French president Emmanuelle Macron, who has clashed with Mr Trump, was among the first world leaders to congratulate Mr Biden. “We will be professional,” said the official. “There’s no love lost, as everyone knows. We are not each other’s type.”

On the other hand, “Macron had an excellent call with Biden”.

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