There is no escaping it: America is on the ballot on Tuesday — the stability and quality of our governing institutions, our alliances, how we treat one another, our basic commitment to scientific principles and the minimum decency that we expect from our leaders. The whole ball of wax is on the ballot.
The good news is that we’ve survived four years of Donald Trump’s abusive presidency with most of our core values still intact. To be sure, the damage has been profound, but, I’d argue, the cancer has not yet metastasized into the bones and lymph nodes of our nation. The harm is still reversible.
The bad news is that if we have to endure four more years of Donald Trump, with him unrestrained by the need to be re-elected, our country will not be the America we grew up with, whose values, norms and institutions we had come to take for granted.
Four more years of a president without shame, backed by a party without spine, amplified by a TV network without integrity, and the cancer will be in the bones of every institution that has made America America.
And then, who will we be? We can explain away, and the world can explain away, taking a one-time flier on a fast-talking, huckster-populist like Trump. It’s happened to many countries in history. But if we re-elect him, knowing what a norm-destroying, divisive, corrupt liar he is, then the world will not treat the last four years as an aberration. It will treat them as an affirmation that we’ve changed.
The world will not just look at America differently, but at Americans differently. And with good reason.
Re-electing Trump would mean that a significant number of Americans don’t cherish the norms that give our Constitution meaning, don’t appreciate the need for an independent, professional Civil Service, don’t respect scientists, don’t hunger for national unity, don’t care if a president tells 20,000 lies — in short, don’t care about what has actually made America great and different from any other great power in history.
If that happens, what America has lost these past four years will become permanent.
And the effects will be felt all over the world. Foreigners love to make fun of America, of our naïveté, or our silly notion that every problem has a solution and that the future can bury the past — that the past doesn’t always have to bury the future. But deep down, they often envy Americans’ optimism.
If America goes dark, if the message broadcast by the Statue of Liberty shifts from “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to “get the hell off my lawn”; if America becomes just as cynically transactional in all its foreign dealings as Russia and China; if foreigners stop believing that there is somewhere over the rainbow where truth is still held sacred in news reporting and where justice is the norm in most of the courts, then the whole world will get darker. Those who have looked to us for inspiration will have no widely respected reference point against which to critique their own governments.
Authoritarian leaders all over the world — in Turkey, China, Russia, Poland, Hungary, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and elsewhere — already smell this. They have been emboldened by the Trump years. They know they’re freer to assassinate, poison, jail, torture and censor whomever they want, without reproach from America, as long as they flatter Trump or buy our arms.
I asked Nader Mousavizadeh, a former senior U.N. official who now runs the London-based consultancy Macro Advisory Partners, what he thought was at stake in this election. He said: “It’s the sense that ever since F.D.R., despite all kinds of failures and flaws, America was a country that wanted a better future — not just for itself but for other people.”
While that may seem like a banality, he added, “it is actually unique in history. No other great power in history has behaved that way. And it provided America with an intangible asset of immense value: the benefit of the doubt. People across the world were willing to give America a second, third and fourth chance because they believed that, unlike any other great power that had come to impact their lives, our purpose was different.”
Of course, America has at times behaved in cruel, nakedly self-interested, reckless and harmful ways toward other nations and peoples. Vietnam was real. Anti-democratic coups in Iran and Chile were real. Abu Ghraib was real. Separating children from their parents at our southern border was real.
But they remain exceptions, not our modus operandi, which is precisely why people all over the world, not to mention Americans, are so enraged by them — while shrugging off Russia’s or China’s abuses.
It’s because they know, added Mousavizadeh, that historically “America’s intent, if not always its practice, has been to exhort not extort other nations; to export not exploit; to collaborate not dominate; and to strengthen a global system of rules and norms, not overturn it in order to focus exclusively on its own enrichment.
“Four more years of Trump’s America, and no one will have cause to give us the benefit of any doubt. The disillusionment will be shattering to our standing and influence — and only when we are received around the world as Russians or Chinese will we know what we have lost, for good.”
Was everything Trump did wrong or unnecessary? No. He provided a valuable corrective to U.S.-China trade relations. A useful counterpunch to Iranian excesses in the Middle East. And he sent the needed message, albeit crudely, that if you want to come into this country, you can’t just walk in, you have to at least ring the doorbell.
But these initiatives were nowhere near as impactful as Trump pretends they are, precisely because he did them alone — without allies abroad or bipartisan support at home. We could have had a much bigger and sustainable impact on China and Iran if we had acted with our allies; we could have had a grand bargain on immigration if Trump had been willing to move to the center. But he wouldn’t.
I fear that this inability of Americans to do big, hard things together anymore — which predated Trump and the pandemic, but was exacerbated by them both — has led to another loss. It’s a loss of confidence in democratic systems generally, and versus China’s autocratic system in particular.