WASHINGTON ― Americans like to regard our country as the bulwark and beacon of democracy, and our president as “the leader of the free world.”
It’s our brand. Or was.
On Nov. 8, Donald Trump won the White House by portraying himself as a populist strongman who would smash the “system” and protect traditional America from the economic and cultural onslaught of Them.
The billionaire businessman campaigned on a not-quite-spoken promise to be our Vladimir Putin, with a better line of men’s cologne.
Since then, Trump has said nice things about a rogue’s gallery of other anti-democracy, nationalist strongmen: Xi Jinping of China, Recap Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and even Kim Jong Un of North Korea, a lunatic our president called a “smart cookie.”
As for Putin, Trump knows that he can’t fawn, but he can still warn: Our president gave Moscow a heads-up before firing 59 missiles at a Russian-supported Syrian airfield.
At home, Trump has trashed “so-called” federal judges, criticized the U.S. Senate as outmoded, called the top Democrat a “bad leader,” dismissed the press as “fake news,” suggested that shutting down the government would be “good,” scoffed at the probe into Russian election meddling as a “charade,” and treated facts as fungible, truth as irrelevant and history as bunk.
On Tuesday Trump fired the FBI director, who apparently was investigating him, his campaign and his businesses for improper ties to Russia.
So that’s the narrative in Washington, capital of the free world.
But in the months since we elected Trump, a growing list of other free countries have voted for leaders who, in one way or another, reject global Trumpism as a danger to democracy itself.
Voters in Holland, Austria, France and (as of Monday) South Korea have rejected fear-based authoritarian nationalism in favor of open-minded, internationalist democrats who respect process.
“The Trump tide has crested,” a top European diplomat based here told me recently. “We have looked at Trump and said ‘no.’”
That view may be too hopeful, or even naïve, in the long run. But for now, the trend is clear:
Less than a month after Trump’s victory, voters in Austria rejected far-right, anti-Europe and anti-immigrant Norbert Hofer, and instead elected as president Alexander Van der Bellen, who ran on a theme of “freedom, quality and solidarity.”
In March, Conservative Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte beat back what many had seen as the likely victory of strident anti-immigration rabble-rouser Geert Wilders, who had proposed to “de-Islamize” the Netherlands.
Over the weekend, former investment banker and centrist Emmanuel Macron trounced ― by an unexpectedly large margin ― the anti-Europe, anti-immigrant Marine Le Pen, whom Trump had predicted would gain votes from latest terrorist attack in Paris. Just the opposite was true, as Macron became the youngest president of France, and spoke of unity and in defense of democratic institutions.
And Monday, voters in South Korea chose as their new president Moon Jae-in, who vowed to seek better relations with the North and questioned both Trump’s go-it-alone, spasmodic approach, and his insistence on installing (and making South Korea pay for) a new missile system.
Attention next turns to Germany, which will hold federal elections in September, and to Italy, which may vote as early as summer. But the results so far are especially reassuring to German officials, who have urgent historical reasons for fearing a rebirth of strident, race-based nationalism in their country.
There were unique circumstances at work in the four post-Trump elections, including anti-Semitism in the roots of Le Pen’s movement in France, and a corruption scandal in South Korea.
But the overall pattern is clear, raising questions about America’s century-long role as the guarantor of democracy.
“Maybe this is just temporary,” said the European diplomat in D.C. “I have to believe that Trump is an aberration or that he will learn as he goes. For now, we have to do the work ourselves, in Germany and elsewhere, which, if you think about it, is a very good thing.”
This article has been updated to include Trump’s firing of the FBI director.