Though Trump’s presidency has been defined by moments of disruption and surprise, what unfolded Tuesday night still seemed like a turning point, as a world beset by the coronavirus pandemic and the political turmoil it has wrought saw a superpower’s election run through with chaos and dysfunction.
In a scene that foreign observers likened to a “cage fight,” Trump cast doubt on the U.S. electoral system and told a far-right group that has endorsed violence, and that rights organizations have condemned for white supremacy, to stand by.
His opponent, Democratic nominee Joe Biden, and the moderator, Chris Wallace, struggled to push back. To many watching from afar, it seemed like a warning: There are new rules now.
For traditional U.S. allies, the debate was another sign that something is deeply wrong with a country and system that, while flawed, has served as a beacon for others.
“The U.S. has always been a democratic role model,” especially for Germany, but “our motherland of democracy has gone down a dangerous path,” said Stephan Bierling, an international politics professor at the University of Regensburg in Germany, who recently published a book on Trump. “A second Trump term would severely damage its democratic norms.”
The English-language edition of China’s Global Times, a Communist Party-controlled newspaper, offered a similar assessment, saying the debate “showed the world a divided and chaotic U.S.”
The debate initially sent markets stumbling Wednesday, renewing fear that what happens in November could push the global economy into a spiral.
In a note to investors, UBS Global Wealth Management chief economist Paul Donovan, said that the key debate takeaway was “increased expectations for a contested election result.”
For outsiders, U.S. presidential politics has long had an air of reality television — never more than under Trump. But many people saw what played out Tuesday night as something more alarming.
“That was gross,” read the headline of an opinion piece in Canada’s Globe and Mail. “The tawdry details of the first U.S. presidential debate of 2020 will be unpacked and analyzed for weeks,” wrote critic John Doyle.
“Insults, interruptions, noise,” Nick Robinson, a BBC journalist who moderated last year’s debate between British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, wrote on Twitter.
Robinson compared the U.S. debate to a “street fight” — as did several others.
“The first debate between would-be leaders of the free world was better suited to the Colosseum of ancient Rome or a cage fight in Las Vegas,” according to the Australian.
Foreign observers saw the tone not as not just populist showboating but as evidence of a country come undone.
“Whoever is looking for an explanation for the shape the United States is currently in will find it in those 90 minutes, that should have been a political debate,” Switzerland’s right-leaning, German-language Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper wrote Wednesday. “Instead, the tradition has degenerated into cheap reality TV. What flickered across TV screens was the image of a country in chaos.”
“The spiteful debate mirrors a country that is no longer even capable of having a dignified discussion,” the editorial continued.
This sentiment is not new. In recent years, Pew Research Center polls have captured growing global disillusionment with the United States under Trump.
Views of the United States among some of its closest peers have slid to the lowest level in two decades, amid clashes with foreign partners and over the president’s handling of the pandemic.
But even among U.S. critics there was a widespread assumption that American institutions would prevail.
That confidence gave other countries the ability to watch the United States with a bit of a wink, treating the Trump administration as a circus that would pack up and leave town one day. As the election nears, observers in foreign capitols are less inclined to laugh.
Trump’s actions have raised “the question of the effectiveness of checks and balances, Congress and courts in particular, that are supposed to prevent abuse of power by the president,” Switzerland’s Le Temps wrote this month, citing numerous examples of Trump breaking democratic norms.
The spectacle of the debate seemed to unite observers with divergent ideological allegiances.
The chaos at the top of U.S. politics “reflects division, anxiety of U.S. society and the accelerating loss of advantages of the US political system,” Hu Xijin, editor of the Chinese state-run Global Times, wrote on Twitter.
The debate “was truly terrible,” Anna Soubry, a former British lawmaker, wrote on Twitter. “Whatever our views let’s agree and promise we will never allow British politics to plummet to such a level.”
“At the end of watching the debate in the U.S., I really appreciated the political culture in Europe and its modesty,” Markus Kaim, senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said in a seminar Wednesday.
Others saw the debate as a warning — and not just to Washington.
“Four years of Trumpism have largely contributed to weakening one of the greatest democracies in the world,” warned an editorial in Le Monde, a French newspaper. “It’s a lesson for everyone else.”
Trump even managed to sow discontent in at least one of the few countries where his popularity has been on the rise since he assumed office.
Shekhar Gupta, founder of popular Indian news site ThePrint, tweeted, “Trump is holding up the mirror for legions of his fans in India,” after the president raised doubts over whether India and other countries were reporting accurate coronavirus mortality figures.
“You can see that he has zero respect for India, forget any affection,” Gupta wrote.
Ishaan Tharoor contributed to this report.
This report has been updated.