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OP-ED: Trump's destructive behavior emboldens authoritarians abroad

Susan D. Hyde
Los Angeles Times
President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally Sunday in Londonderry, New Hampshire.

U.S. presidential elections have always attracted a global audience, and in general, that's been a good thing.

Our quadrennial balloting, despite the obscene spending by campaigns and the often rancorous exchanges between candidates, has served as an example to the world that free and fair elections are possible and that transitions of power can be peaceful.

Americans might be deeply divided politically, but every four years they have a chance for a political reset — and voters of all parties accept the outcome. So, what does this year's election signal to the world?

The coming days and weeks will make that clearer, but one thing is certain: The vote has revealed cracks in the country's democratic foundations that will have significant global repercussions.

Since the early 1990s, the U.S. and other democracies around the world have played an important role in convincing incumbents who lose elections to step down peacefully. That pressure has mattered in numerous countries. In recent months, for example, U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo encouraged political actors to accept contested election results in Belarus and Guyana.

President Donald Trump's refusal to accept the election results will inevitably complicate future U.S. support for democratic elections around the world, making our efforts less effective and very likely subject to ridicule.

A second crack likely to reverberate around the world has been the steady flow of unfiltered lies from the president. By reaching out to his supporters directly on social media with deeply misleading information, he has provided a dangerous model for would-be authoritarian leaders about how to lie directly to supporters with few repercussions, while also undermining reputable media that rely on facts.

This is a more fundamental threat to democracy than many people realize, because it blurs the line between truth and lies, and starts causing people to question whether truth is even knowable. As former President Barack Obama put it recently in an interview, "If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what's true from what's false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn't work. And by definition our democracy doesn't work."

Trump's use of these tactics, though ridiculed by many, has been shockingly successful with his base. In numerous recent surveys, less than half of self-identified Republicans said they believed Joe Biden won the election, despite vote tallies showing him to have been the victor.

One survey found that 70% of Republicans believe the election was fraudulent, a position that has not been supported with any concrete evidence. And Trump recently posted, with apparent pride, a link to a Reuters/Ipsos poll finding "that Trump's open defiance of Biden's victory in both the popular vote and electoral college appears to be affecting the public's confidence in American democracy, especially among Republicans."

Such success in escaping electoral accountability — and in undermining democratic foundations — will not go unnoticed by other populist and authoritarian-leaning politicians around the world.

While the U.S. foundation of democracy is probably strong enough to withstand Trump, at least for now, it is likely that his methods for evading electoral accountability, contradicting inconvenient facts with lies and governing with bluster rather than actions will undermine democratic accountability around the world.

For all the damage this year's election has done, it has also provided some reason for supporters of democracy to hope. While messy, the voting was a reminder of one of our system's greatest virtues: Although there is nothing about democracy that guarantees the selection of good leaders, regularly scheduled elections offer opportunities for citizens to oust bad presidents.

Voters ultimately chose Biden over Trump, and despite his refusal to concede, Trump will soon be turned out of office. His authoritarian impulses, including the encouragement of intimidation as an electoral tactic, failed.

In the end, the tools of democracy were effective, and a sitting incumbent president was defeated at the ballot box. It will take time and effort to repair the damage Trump's authoritarian impulses have caused.

Here at home, perhaps the failure of his last, outrageous stand will serve as a cautionary tale to politicians of both parties. And internationally, we just have to hope that authoritarian leaders who embrace his example will meet with similar ends.

Susan D. Hyde is a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of "The Pseudo-Democrat's Dilemma: Why Election Observation Became an International Norm."