Election 2020

Trump Was a Warning

It’s time the United States and Europe start taking their democracies more seriously.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
U.S. President Donald Trump departs the White House on March 22, 2019.
U.S. President Donald Trump departs the White House on March 22, 2019. Alex Wong/Getty Images

“Life is a cabaret, old chum,” sang Sally Bowles in the musical Cabaret. And indeed, that’s how many Americans and others have been treating their democracies over the last several years: U.S. President Donald Trump and many others, of all ideological stripes, have treated it as a show. Yet under Trump, that approach took the United States to a cliff over which beckoned real authoritarianism and chaos. Now, Democratic candidate Joe Biden has been elected president, and the United States seems to have stepped back from that edge for now. But the election should be a wake-up call—and not just in the United States.

All over Europe, the reaction to Biden’s victory was instantaneous and ecstatic, with cries of “may America never have a child ruling the White House again” and a sense that a nightmare is over. The vast majority of Europeans, and many others, had been cheering Biden on—not because they particularly supported his policies, but because, like many Americans, they had been terrified by America’s course under Trump.

And yet, while decrying Trump’s vulgarity during the course of his presidency, many of the same people engaged in that very behavior: mudslinging, ad hominem attacks, name-calling. People of all political persuasions did it. Highly educated people who consider themselves experts did it. Some Americans—on both sides—engaged in violent attacks when they could have protested peacefully. Life was a cabaret, after all, until Election Day, when it dawned on plenty of people just how close to the edge of chaos the United States was. That democracy doesn’t survive on its own: People have to look after it.

“Life is a cabaret, old chum,” sang Sally Bowles in the musical Cabaret. And indeed, that’s how many Americans and others have been treating their democracies over the last several years: U.S. President Donald Trump and many others, of all ideological stripes, have treated it as a show. Yet under Trump, that approach took the United States to a cliff over which beckoned real authoritarianism and chaos. Now, Democratic candidate Joe Biden has been elected president, and the United States seems to have stepped back from that edge for now. But the election should be a wake-up call—and not just in the United States.

All over Europe, the reaction to Biden’s victory was instantaneous and ecstatic, with cries of “may America never have a child ruling the White House again” and a sense that a nightmare is over. The vast majority of Europeans, and many others, had been cheering Biden on—not because they particularly supported his policies, but because, like many Americans, they had been terrified by America’s course under Trump.

And yet, while decrying Trump’s vulgarity during the course of his presidency, many of the same people engaged in that very behavior: mudslinging, ad hominem attacks, name-calling. People of all political persuasions did it. Highly educated people who consider themselves experts did it. Some Americans—on both sides—engaged in violent attacks when they could have protested peacefully. Life was a cabaret, after all, until Election Day, when it dawned on plenty of people just how close to the edge of chaos the United States was. That democracy doesn’t survive on its own: People have to look after it.

In the 1930s, at the same time the fictional Sally Bowles sang her songs in Berlin, the real Austrian writer Stefan Zweig watched the events Cabaret depicts: their country’s imperceptible descent into the abyss, with people taking their well-functioning society for granted even as it was slipping away. And because they didn’t see it slipping away, he wrote, they didn’t act. The veneer between a functioning democracy and descent into Hobbesian free-for-all is very thin, indeed.

With the election of Biden, that veneer is now back in place. European leaders have a long wish list that includes a U.S. return to the Paris climate agreement (Biden has promised that will happen on Inauguration Day), a commitment to European security, and simply a negotiation partner who behaves like an adult. But there’s no reason for Europeans to be smug. A Trump could appear there, too.

Meanwhile, although Biden has said he wants the United States to heal, he can’t do it alone. Division and, worse, suspicion of the other side are rampant—perhaps not surprisingly after so many hours spent denouncing each other. During this election campaign, the two candidates for governor of Utah recorded a joint video pleading for civility, but they’re rare bridge-building voices.

In the end, it isn’t just the act of voting and the relatively smooth counting of votes that make a democracy. It’s also peaceful protest when votes really are stolen, as in Belarus, where protesters march week after week for fair elections. It’s engaging with the other side on Twitter rather than responding with demeaning gifs. It’s putting in the hard work to learn the ABCs of elections, as East Germans did ahead of their first free elections in 1990. Indeed, maybe it’s time for both Americans and the rest of the world to relearn what rule by the people really entails. Democracy isn’t only a cabaret, old chum.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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