Chernow was echoing a lot of what would come to animate support for Trump’s Democratic challenger Joe Biden, especially among the small, yet influential subset of “Never Trump” Republicans cloistered in the U.S. capital. That is, a belief that Trumpism was indeed just an “interlude.” In this vision, Trump’s nativist politics at home and protectionism abroad were cast as “un-American.” His boorish rhetoric and self-dealing proclivities were seen as aberrations. His feckless management of the coronavirus pandemic was a betrayal of a legacy of sturdy White House leadership amid crisis.
Biden, by contrast, represented the possibility of restoration, a return to hallowed norms, decency and a spirit of consensus in American politics. At least, that was the pitch.
As we approached midnight Wednesday, though, it seemed that almost half of America wasn’t that convinced. Biden has won more votes than any U.S. presidential candidate in history and remained the favorite to seal an electoral college victory as vote counting proceeded in five battleground states. But Trump, as in 2016, outperformed mainstream expectations and the bulk of the polls. More Americans voted for him this year than did when he surged to power as an anti-establishment outsider four years ago. Democrats’ ambitions to expand their grip on the House and flip the Senate in their favor looked dashed.
Foreign commentators understood the implications. “The Americans did not, as many had hoped, forcefully reject Trumpism — even if Biden wins in the end,” wrote Clemens Wergin, the chief foreign correspondent for Germany’s Die Welt newspaper.
Instead, a polarized nation yielded a polarized outcome. Trump, to the horror of many veteran political journalists, prematurely declared victory when it was abundantly clear that millions of votes remained to be counted and that he didn’t have anything mathematically secured. Then, he and his allies alleged through Wednesday that their opponents were stealing the vote as election authorities in various states simply went about counting each ballot.
“Trump has shown once again he cares not about the Constitution or the stability and well-being of the country or anything like that,” wrote The Washington Post’s Dan Balz. “He cares only about himself and retaining the powers he now holds. And so he cries ‘fraud’ when there is no evidence whatsoever of any such thing.”
“Trump’s incessant questioning of the basic institutions of our government and electoral system has now produced his desired result, even if he may not be back for another four years: a superpower torn apart from within, no longer trusting of its own democracy,” wrote the New Yorker’s Susan B. Glasser.
In Europe, senior officials lamented the tumult of the U.S. election and warned of a potentially “explosive” situation. Election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — whose work Washington has supported in various fledgling democracies — issued a statement reminding U.S. authorities of the “fundamental obligation” to count all votes. “Baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent President, including on election night, harm public trust in democratic institutions,” said Michael Georg Link of the OSCE mission.
But the inescapable reality of the election results is that Trumpism remains a powerful current in American politics. It’s akin to political tendencies in other parts of the world where strongmen have co-opted democracies. The president’s brand of demagogic nationalism, his ceaseless campaigning through every year of his term and his unrepentant embrace of divisive messaging and tactics have clearly mobilized tremendous support.
“Trump over-performed in myriad polling measures. There would be no landslides, only squeakers and clenched jaws — and, possibly, court fights,” wrote my colleague Monica Hesse. “Win or lose, Trumpism will not have been swept into the dustbin of history; it will remain all over the furniture. It’s part of the furniture.”
Indeed, it may have captured right-wing politics in the United States for years to come. “Trumpism might be becoming America’s version of Peronism,” tweeted Dan Slater, director at the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan, referring to Argentina’s own legacy of populist nationalism. “Highly mobilizing, highly polarizing, not always in power, but never going away.”
For onlookers abroad, it is evidence of American decline. What does it mean for a country so defined by decades of peaceful transitions of power and stable government — that helped spread many of its norms elsewhere — to now face such potential crisis? “Today, with Washington in chaos, its future sovereign unknown, it is the idea of America that risks being submerged, an idea that much of the world has grown to rely on — and, indeed, has adopted,” wrote the Atlantic’s Tom McTague.
“When Biden talked about the election being a battle for the soul of the US, he was alluding to Trump’s unfitness for office, which seemed to have been demonstrated by the Covid-19 failure, along with the racist dog-whistling and various other insults to the democratic system,” noted an editorial in Stuff, New Zealand’s biggest news site. “That so many voters in the US were willing to have another four years of Trump should cause all of us to rethink our assumptions.”
The lingering uncertainty around the vote, as was anticipated, made gleeful viewing in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran. “The result of the elections is the worst outcome for America,” Russian lawmaker Vyacheslav Nikonov, who welcomed Trump’s 2016 win, wrote on Facebook. “Whoever wins the legal battles, half of Americans will not consider them the lawful president. Let’s stock up on large quantities of popcorn.”
Xin Qiang, deputy director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, told the Chinese state outlet Global Times that “the soil that can grow a presidential candidate like Trump still exists in the U.S., and four years later, Republicans can have another Trump-like candidate — even the Democrats could have their own ‘Trump.’”