The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A year after the Capitol insurrection, the world still sees something broken in America’s democracy

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In the Netflix hit “Don’t Look Up,” emissaries of Meryl Streep — playing a Trumpian U.S. president — urge her loyal backers not to gaze skyward at a visible comet hurtling toward Earth and that right-wing pundits dismiss as a hoax or exaggerated threat. Nearly one year after the Jan. 6 riot, plenty of real Republicans are effectively telling Americans, “Don’t Look Back” at the mob of Trump supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol.

As the world watches a riven, fact-relative nation still at war with itself, U.S. allies are delivering their own verdict: That an erratic United States can no longer be seen as the model democracy or reliable partner that some once thought it to be.

The globe is witnessing an America where those who are willing to look back at the insurrection perceive vastly different realities, along starkly partisan lines. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll released Saturday found that 72 percent of Republicans believe President Trump bears “just some” responsibility or “none at all” for the events of Jan. 6, when, as my colleagues reported, “he claimed at a [Jan. 6] rally near the White House that the election had been rigged and urged his followers to ‘fight like hell’ to stop what he said was a stolen outcome.” Compare that with 92 percent of Democrats who say he bears a “great deal” or “good amount” of the blame.

Other Trump backers — such as Rep. Andrew S. Clyde (R-Ga.), who famously likened the insurrection to a “normal tourist visit” at the Capitol — have taken a “nothing-to-see-here” approach. As Trump and his supporters continue to push the false narrative that the election was stolen, 3 in 10 Americans, including a majority of Republicans, The Post’s poll found, still believe Biden’s presidency is illegitimate — a divide some observers call a gift to America’s adversaries as President Biden tries to counter Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Ukraine and China’s President Xi Jinping in Taiwan.

The widespread conclusion abroad is that one year after the attack on the Capitol, something remains broken in America’s democracy. The legacy of Jan. 6 could be less as a singular event than as an inflection point in a broader narrative of the United States as a house divided, incapable of consensus and with its pillars of democracy and global reach irrevocably weakened.

“Clearly, this is a year in which the crisis of American democracy has become incredibly visible to all,” the Financial Times’ Martin Wolf said in a podcast last month. “And that is a singularly disturbing fact for those of us who live in what we used to think of as the free world.”

The European Union is redoubling its determination to avoid the same pitfalls, even if that means reining in freedom of speech by getting ahead of Washington with legal curbs on the use of social media as a propagator of disinformation and hate. Especially in Europe and Asia, there are also lingering doubts over the strength and direction of U.S. democracy and the solidity of the transatlantic and transpacific partnerships.

At a recent global security conference in Canada, Politico noted, some of the deepest concern was reserved for the United States.

“When you see the absolute essential foundations of the democracy being challenged from within, and where you see a political party, the Republican Party — not all of them, but many of them — actually challenging the constitutional institutions,” Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s former prime minister, told Politico, “that’s what really undermines public international faith in American democracy.”

Wrote Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin: “European and Asian leaders wonder whether the partisan madness eating away at America’s democratic institutions will undercut any effective U.S. foreign policy. This is a time when our country needs to be united against China’s advances and Russia’s aggression.”

Following Biden’s victory, hope sprang in European capitals that a new administration would repair the damage done during the Trump years, when the former president dismissed NATO as a bad deal and drubbed the European Union. Biden has promoted democracy as a concept, hosting a virtual summit on the topic last month and rebuilding a measure of good will by extending a hand across the Atlantic. But experts say last year’s rapid pullout from Afghanistan, and a strategic defense deal with Australia and Britain that infuriated France, seriously undermined attempts to mend fences and fed the image of Washington as a mercurial leader.

Among the moments that encapsulated that sentiment: The day last September when French President Emmanuel Macron urged Europeans, as my colleagues reported, to “come out of their naivete” and assert their independence from the United States. A Pew Research Center survey released in November suggested that despite Biden’s victory and Trump’s ultimate willingness to step down, respondents in most countries no longer view the United States as a “good example” of democracy — a title only 8 percent of New Zealanders, 14 percent of Germans and 22 percent of Taiwanese felt America deserves.

“I think it’s not just the Capitol riots in themselves, but, on the whole, the turbulent domestic political landscape in the U.S. that raises question marks about the long-term strategic reliability of the United States,” Peter Kreko, director of the Political Capital Institute, a Budapest-based think tank, told me.

Critics also see a failure of accountability — both by America’s leaders and the populace — for the events of Jan. 6, making it harder for Washington to hold itself up as a global champion for the rule of law. Republicans — who have sought to downplay the assault on the Capitol in which five people died — are nevertheless early favorites in this year’s midterm elections, in part due to gerrymandering, potentially bringing more gridlock to Washington as well as the appearance of a vindication by the U.S. electorate.

Federal prosecutors have charged more than 725 individuals with various crimes in connection with the deadly insurrection. But, as a recent Newsweek analysis showed, more than half of the 71 Capitol rioters sentenced in 2021 avoided jail time.

Domestically, the United States is grappling with eroding faith in democratic norms, making it harder for Washington to call out backsliding abroad. The Post’s poll found that the percentage of Americans who say violent action against the government is justified at times has reached 34 percent — considerably higher than in past polls dating back more than two decades.

Twitter and Facebook have banned Trump, who has denied any wrongdoing. But the former president — whose role in the insurrection is still being investigated by a special legislative committee — has not been officially charged with any crimes for his actions that day and has appeared to be preparing a 2024 comeback attempt.

The idea of the United States as a champion of democracy “is a difficult argument to sustain when the rest of world has witnessed Jan. 6, and seen that President Trump was not held accountable,” Anu Bradford from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me. “The problem is that there was no democratic process to deal with the consequences of that day. The biggest penalty was when the [social media] platforms themselves decided to close [Trump’s] microphone. It shouldn’t be that Mark Zuckerberg is one who primarily upholds democratic accountability.”

It is impossible to judge the longer term effect on American democracy. But, spoiler alert, in the Netflix flick, the comet hits the Earth — and destroys it.

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There was an ‘epidemic’ of coups in 2021. The new year hasn’t cured the political turmoil.

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