BERLIN — Roy Moore’s defeat in the Tuesday special election may have come as a relief to liberal Americans, but in Europe it was taken as a sign that the United States has not totally lost its moral compass.
The 2016 election victory of President Trump, who is deeply unpopular across Western Europe, appears to have severely damaged the United States’ status as a role model in Europe. Democrat Doug Jones's victory over Moore, a Republican — who was dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct involving teenage girls decades ago — in Alabama's special election to fill a U.S. Senate seat was interpreted by many in Europe as a reversal for Trump and a sign that all is not lost across the Atlantic.
In Europe, the Alabama election result was widely seen as a “notable setback for President Donald Trump,” in the words of France’s liberal Liberation newspaper. Its center-left competitor Le Monde declared the result a “referendum about Trump’s political agenda,” and Britain’s Financial Times agreed that it was “a big blow for Mr Trump.”
That sentiment was perhaps most pronounced in Germany, where confidence in Trump has been even lower than in France and Britain. The center-left German weekly Die Zeit framed the defeat as “the miracle of Alabama.”
But the relief was not limited to liberal media outlets. Writing in the conservative German newspaper Die Welt, Clemens Wergin said that the “victory of Jones shows that America has changed since Trump’s election.” Whereas many voters did not take the sexual assault allegations against Trump seriously ahead of his victory last year, there appeared to be a growing awareness this time around that defied partisan lines, Wergin wrote.
“Many people in Alabama want to send a message to the world: America is still able to show a tolerant and cosmopolitan face,” wrote Jan Philipp Burgard, a U.S. correspondent with the German public TV station ARD.
Germany and Britain have long considered themselves close allies of the United States, but leaders here are finding it increasingly difficult to work with a U.S. president who has repeatedly lashed out at them and is deeply unpopular among European voters.
Trump’s low approval ratings in Europe have defied partisan lines. Not only liberals but also many conservatives here have viewed his remarks about banning Muslims, building a wall and pulling out of climate and trade deals as populist and divisive.
Europe is also struggling with a populist, right-wing resurgence of its own that has made electoral inroads in recent years in countries such as Hungary, Poland and Austria, not to mention a second-place showing in France's presidential election. While the populist right remains restricted mostly to the political sidelines, it was encouraged by Trump’s victory.
Moore’s defeat was also interpreted as a sign of a revival of “decency” in the United States. Alabama’s voters “have proved that politics is not just about party interests, but decency and morality as well,” commented Alexandra von Nahmen, head of the German broadcaster DW’s Washington bureau. (DW is funded by the German government but operates independently.)
To von Nahmen, the refusal of the majority of voters in Alabama to support Moore is not only an electoral but also a moral defeat for Trump. “The Republicans’ loss lies squarely with Donald Trump. He believed his support for a candidate like Moore would ensure victory. But Alabama voters did not allow the President to get away with this amoral behavior. That too is a good thing,” von Nahmen wrote. That sentiment was widely echoed Wednesday by other major European news outlets, which called the defeat a “black day for Trump” and proclaimed a “red line for Trump-style politics.”
“Donald Trump chose to waste what little remains of his political capital on a man accused of being a sexual predator of teenage girls,” wrote Guardian U.S. columnist Richard Wolffe.
“Due to the fact that the president was so involved in the [Alabama] election campaign — which he did not necessarily have to be — the result is also an indication of his declining popularity,” political scientist Michael Dreyer told German public radio on Wednesday.
Whereas most reactions here focused on the possible repercussions of Moore’s defeat on a national level, one sentence from Jones stood out: “I have always believed that the people of Alabama have more in common than divides us,” he said.