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Trump's election falsehoods 'put a smile' on the faces of dictators, observers warn

"This weakens the moral authority of the U.S. when speaking out about other countries' elections," one expert said.
Image: Supporters of President Donald Trump bang on the glass and chant slogans outside the room where absentee ballots for the 2020 general election are being counted at TCF Center
Supporters of President Donald Trump bang on the glass and chant slogans outside a room where absentee ballots were being counted in Detroit on Wednesday.Jeff Kowalsky / AFP - Getty Images

LONDON — Accusations of vote-rigging, protests at counting centers and false declarations of victory from an embattled incumbent. President Donald Trump's baseless claims in the wake of the election are a gift to the world's dictators and undermine American efforts to call out antidemocratic behavior abroad, experts have warned.

Since the election, Trump has launched a rhetorical assault on the basic tenets of American democracy. He urged officials to stop counting votes when his lead in several battleground states began to narrow; he alleged widespread voter fraud without evidence and wrongly labeled mail-in ballots illegal; and he repeatedly accused the Democrats of trying to "steal" the election.

Even after a first term in which the president has repeatedly undermined democratic values, his comments this week have caused a whole new level of alarm. This only increased when his supporters, some of them armed, began crowding polling centers during knife-edge counts in Arizona and Michigan.

But independent observers have also warned of damaging consequences abroad, where the United States has spent decades — and millions of dollars — on democracy building efforts.

"He very clearly crossed a line by saying votes should stop being counted," said Michael Link, the leader of an electoral observer mission to the U.S. by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "To use a sports analogy, when you're in the middle of the game and you're leading with 40 minutes to go, you can't stop the game just because you want to win."

The OSCE, a large international organization that monitors elections around the world, found in its preliminary report Wednesday that the U.S. vote was largely "competitive and well managed." But it said it had been "tarnished" by Trump's "baseless allegations" and warned his comments would "harm public trust in democratic institutions" globally.

Watching from Malawi, authoritarianism expert Nic Cheeseman said he was already witnessing first hand the real-world damage wrought by Trump's remarks.

"This weakens the moral authority of the U.S. when speaking out about other countries' elections, and that will embolden dictators around the world," said Cheeseman, who is temporarily based in East Africa but is a professor of democracy and international development at England's University of Birmingham.

Anyone wanting to subvert democracy in their own countries will now be able to "take advantage of the fact the U.S. now has a weaker voice on these issues," he said.

The past four years have seen strongmen — from Syria to Turkey, and Hungary to Thailand — adopt Trump's "fake news" mantra to dismiss factual journalism that they don't like. The fear now is that autocrats will be able to directly reference Trump's antidemocratic rhetoric to justify their own actions. Or they may just feel that the U.S. is more likely to let them off the hook, Cheeseman said.

"The U.S. is the leading democracy in the world," former British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told the BBC on Wednesday.

"If we have people talking about stolen elections left right and center, then we are only going to put a smile on the face of people like President Putin, President Xi," Hunt said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, "who will look at their own people and say: Aren't you pleased you haven't got any of this mess?"

Image: President Donald Trump speaks in the East Room of the White House
Trump speaks in the East Room of the White House early Wednesday.Evan Vucci / AP

Even after a presidency in which Trump has shocked the world with his norm-busting style, for many observers at home and abroad his comments have found a new nadir.

"People here are looking at America in disbelief," Cheeseman said. "America is becoming an electoral laughing stock around the world, and the long-term damage to America's democratic reputation will be profound and last long beyond Trump."

Former Vice President Joe Biden has predicted victory, and called for unity as the final vote was counted. According to NBC News, he has received 253 Electoral College votes, compared to 214 for Trump. His election lawyer Bob Bauer, did receive some criticism for saying that "we've won the election, and we're going to defend that election" in response to Trump's remarks.

For decades, the U.S. has been on the forefront of international democracy-building efforts, being quick to call out some foreign governments when they challenge democratic norms.

In 2018, the United States Agency for International Development spent $92 million on its Transition Initiatives program, designed to help countries boost efforts toward "sustainable development, peace, good governance, and democracy."

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Ahead of a spate of elections across Africa, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned last month that the U.S. would "watch closely the actions of individuals who interfere in the democratic process and will not hesitate to consider consequences."

And on Wednesday, the morning after the U.S. election, the U.S. Embassy in the Ivory Coast called on the country's leaders to show "commitment to the democratic process" after its election was disputed.

"After what Trump said, that exact language could be very easily boomeranged right back to the United States because it applies here, too," according to Brian Klaas, an associate professor of global policy at University College London.

Of course, the U.S. is also accused of soft-soft-pedaling criticism when it comes to friends and strategic partners. Washington counts among its allies the human rights-abusing Saudi Arabia. And it gives $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt, where watchdogs say President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has consolidated his authoritarian rule.

During his time in office Trump has cozied up to dictators, notably saying he "fell in love" with North Korea's Kim Jong Un, widely regarded as one of the world's worst living human rights abusers.

Image: A news conference about ballot counting in Clark County, Nevada
A protester tries to interrupt a news conference about ballot counting in Clark County, Nevada, on Wednesday.Ethan Miller / Getty Images

In this sense, many experts see the president's post-election comments as the most brazen example of a long-running trend, rather than an entirely new development.

During his previous work as an election observer traveling around the world, Klaas said he encountered pushback following the 2000 U.S. presidential race, in which George W. Bush defeated Al Gore despite losing the popular vote and only after an ugly legal battle in Florida that reached the Supreme Court.

"People would say to me, 'How can you lecture us when you don't even give the presidency to the person who gets the most votes?'" he said. "This election is like Bush v Gore on steroids."

There are some senior Republicans who have broken rank with Trump, condemning the comments and insisting all votes must be counted.

"There is no defense for the president's comments tonight undermining our Democratic process," Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said in a tweet. "America is counting the votes, and we must respect the results as we always have before. No election or person is more important than our democracy."

However, these nuances tend to receive little cut-through outside the U.S., and are "probably getting lost in the wall of noise when it comes to international perceptions," Cheeseman said.

And Trump's antidemocratic message is the one that has reverberated above all others.

In Bangkok, Thailand, where protesters risk jail for demanding democratic reform,student Pan Siripark, 19, said they were something that "no one would have ever expected from the U.S."

It was "reminiscent of third-world countries," he added, "where you have accusations of vote rigging … it seems unbelievable."