Election 2020

Biden’s Victory Is No Balm for American Exceptionalism

Trump was a much weaker potential autocrat than others have faced.

Portraits of Ilham Aliyev and Recep Tayyip Erdogan hang in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Police officers walk along a street in front of flags of Azerbaijan and Turkey while portraits of Ilham Aliyev and Recep Tayyip Erdogan hang in Baku, Azerbaijan, on Nov. 9. Tofik Babayev/AFP via Getty Images

 As it became clear last Wednesday that Democratic nominee Joe Biden was going to pick up enough electoral votes to gain the U.S. presidency, his supporters started relaxing into statements of triumph on cable news and social media. Such expressions often took the form of a comparison: In managing to vote President Donald Trump out, the United States was observed to be not like other countries that could not get rid of their own strongmen. It was no Belarus, Zimbabwe, or Azerbaijan; the ballot box, not the streets, had defeated Trump.

The rush on the part of those who spent the last years curled up into a stress ball to immediately declare the United States unlike those other unfortunate—or “shithole,” as Trump would call them—countries is understandable. The 2016 election punctured (at least on the left) the belief in American exceptionalism. A stream of op-eds compared Trump to any and every dictator or would-be autocrat around the world as a cautionary tale, from the more obvious choices such as Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi, Xi Jinping, Jair Bolsonaro, or Hugo Chávez to figures that are less well-known in the United States, such as the king of Thailand or Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

Any time Trump violated an established political norm, such as amassing troops on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial this June or calling on his attorney general to arrest his political opponents, you could count on somebody to pipe up and protest that while such behavior might be expected in another country such as Egypt or China, it was simply unacceptable in the United States. No wonder then that some Biden supporters now want to quickly disassociate their country from such unflattering comparisons. America is not like those countries, they want to believe, because its institutions have withstood the attacks of Trump, it has pushed the populist wave back, and life there can now go back to normal. (And too bad about those other places.)

As Trump whines about a supposedly fraudulent election and tries to rally his supporters, that judgement may be premature. And even if he shuffles off the stage, there’s little reason to think that the thesis of American exceptionalism holds up. If there is a contrast to be made between the United States and other countries suffering from their own dictators or aspiring autocrats, it is not a particularly flattering one for the United States or to the anti-Trump opposition. If the United States is indeed exceptional, it is only in the sense of how easy the opposition has it in the last four years—and still came close to losing.

To begin with, unlike many autocrats, Trump never had serious international support. For all the hand-wringing about Russian meddling, Democrats should imagine how their narrow margins would have fared if they really had to factor in support for Trump from major international players. Everyone is familiar with the more traditional patron-client relationship wherein an autocrat is kept in power due to support from a great power (e.g., Aleksandr Lukashenko in Belarus).

Easier to overlook, however, is the fact that many of the current batch of populist and quasi-authoritarian leaders in Trump’s cohort were initially supported by the international community in the name of liberalism and good governance. Both the United States and the European Union put their thumbs on the scale in numerous ways for leaders such as Erdogan, Putin, and Orban just as they were beginning to consolidate their power.

The opposition in those contexts was essentially gaslit by the international community: They were assured that what they worried was revanchist populism was actually democratization, or that what they saw as creeping authoritarianism was the sign of a reform-minded, efficient leader fighting corruption. Trump’s opponents have heard these arguments from his supporters. They should imagine how they would feel if the international community kept echoing the same arguments, giving them an extra veneer of plausibility for the undecided voters. That’s the situation the opposition in many other countries around the globe faced, especially those that were dealing with the batch of strongmen who hatched in the first decade of this century. Moreover, the United States and the EU never stopped giving these leaders sweetheart deals, even after what they were was evident for all to see.

Trump also did not know how to reach far beyond his base. Democrats had every right to be worried about Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and the damage he was doing to American political institutions. But let’s face it: Just as Trump is not good at anything except polishing his own brand, he was not a particularly successful would-be autocrat either. Others in his cohort know exactly when to pause playing to the base and manufacture (or take advantage of) national crises in ways that force all but the most radical opposition’s hand into rhetorically supporting them. Tried and tested tactics include starting wars that allow the leader to cast any opposition to him as support for the enemy and producing a “rally around the flag” effect.

Trump never really tried any of this, and he also completely wasted the political opportunity handed to him by the COVID-19 pandemic. Had he shown even some leadership in that regard, he could have shielded himself from criticism at least long enough to survive the elections. Trump is the principal architect of his own defeat in this way and others. He lacks the concentration of Putin, the grit of Erdogan, or the ruthlessness of Rodrigo Duterte.

It was not the strength of American institutions or Americans’ greater love of democracy compared to other places that ousted Trump. Democrats simply got lucky: They faced the most incompetent, least internationally supported version of the strongman threat.

They should remember that the next time they are tempted to dismiss another country as a “tinpot dictatorship” or “banana republic.” People who care about democracy exist in those places as well, but it becomes exponentially harder to dislodge Trump-like leaders from power the longer they stay in it. How many more of these Trump years could you handle? In many places, the opposition has been holding it together for much longer than four years, while facing greater obstacles: prison, exile, or death. They have also won bigger victories than the Democrats despite those odds, only to have those victories snatched away, time and time again. Yet they keep going. Americans should learn from their example, because the next time, Americans may not get so lucky either.

Ayse Zarakol teaches international relations at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live With the West and is currently finishing another book studying decline in world politics.