Paul Pillar

The Newest Hit to America's Image

The impact of the election result on the standing of the United States in the world has too many aspects to encapsulate or even, in this early stage of shock, to comprehend.  This is particularly so with a president-elect who will have to construct a foreign policy largely unguided by previous thinking on his part that exhibits consistency and coherence beyond a few themes such as discontent with free-loading allies, admiration for powerful autocrats, and conceiving of economic relations in zero-sum mercantilist terms.  But we can already note some aspects of America’s global standing that are related to the election itself and the campaign that preceded it.  These aspects involve damage that already has been done, and that the result of the election punctuates and extends.

Some of the damage stems from the xenophobic content of Mr. Trump’s campaign, with the disparagement, or what many overseas will take to be disparagement, of major parts of humanity, including among others the nearly quarter of the world’s population that is Muslim.  That such a campaign was a winning campaign reveals the underlying views to be held by much more of America than the president-elect himself.  The extent to which those views are held by Americans who are deplorable or by Americans who are merely discontented and easy prey for such themes matters less to overseas observers than the content of the views themselves.

This pattern hits the American image hard in a place where it hitherto has looked rather good.  Many polls conducted overseas have yielded results that couple negative views of U.S. policies with positive feelings toward the American people.  Perhaps the latter part of such results will start to become less pronounced. 

Then there is the presidential selection process itself.  The election to the most powerful post in the world of someone who is, by temperament and experience, so manifestly unqualified to hold it will be taken by many as a failure of that process.  And Mr. Trump himself provided voluminous rhetoric during the campaign about how the process is “rigged,” how he would not accept an unfavorable outcome, and how if he won he would incarcerate his opponent, amid references to “Second Amendment solutions” and the like.  A casual foreign observer only needed to listen to Mr. Trump to conclude that America’s claim to having an admirable liberal democratic process for choosing its leaders is false.

A more careful, less casual, foreign observer might discount Mr. Trump’s rhetoric as campaign bombast but would notice other disturbing things about the election.  It appears that Mrs. Clinton won a plurality of the popular vote, making this the second out of the last five U.S. presidential elections in which the popular vote winner was denied the White House.  Foreign observers might not appreciate the background to why the electoral college exists, but the disconnect between votes cast and offices won is even more apparent with the routine and blatant gerrymandering, which has served as an incumbent protection device as well as enabling the Republican Party in recent years to hold a majority of seats in the House of Representatives even while losing in total votes to the Democrats.

On top of that are the comparably blatant efforts by one party to gain or hold office not just by winning votes but by suppressing voting by citizens deemed more likely to support the other party.  And on top of that in this election was the October surprise from the head of the top national law enforcement agency, a development that in an election this close could well have made a difference in the outcome.

All of this is prime material for anyone overseas wanting to disparage American democracy.  Regimes with that motivation have been having a field day.  Iranian propaganda writers have had an easy time, merely encouraging people to follow the U.S. election campaign on television.  Vladimir Putin didn’t need to interfere in the U.S. political process to diminish any image advantage it has over his own.

The fact that the side that benefited from things such as voter suppression and Comey’s surprise won the U.S. political contest is what extends into the future the already inflicted damage to the image of American democracy.  That is in addition to this election demonstrating that in America, a xenophobic campaign is a winner.  A victory by Mrs. Clinton would have been seen overseas both as a repudiation of the xenophobia and as an overcoming by the political process of the irregularities.