Speaking to a room of cheering supporters in the early hours of the morning, Trump began his address by listing favorable vote counts in an array of crucial states. His speech then took a darker turn. “This is a fraud on the American public,” he said, apparently referencing claims that he had not yet secured victory. “This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election.” Trump said millions of Americans had voted for him, but claimed the Democrats were trying to steal the election from them. “A very sad group of people are trying to disenfranchise that group of people, and we won’t stand for it.”
The world has long looked at the American experiment with a sense of awe, disbelief, and skepticism that it could hold. In 1835, with the United States a mere fledgling, its original foreign chronicler, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote of the “feverish excitement” that gripped the country at election time, but observed that normality quickly resumed once the result was clear. “As soon as the choice is determined,” he wrote in Democracy in America, “this ardor is dispelled; and as a calmer season returns, the current of the State, which had nearly broken its banks, sinks to its usual level: but who can refrain from astonishment at the causes of the storm.” Today the world watches, wondering whether the latest current has finally broken its banks—the storm of this particular election and this particular president too much for the system to bear.
Outside the U.S., there is despair. The impact of what is happening will be felt much further afield, the consequences not just practical and domestic but philosophical and global. Diplomats and officials I spoke with have voiced worry over the future of the U.S.-led Western alliance, and over the implications for countries abroad. Today, with Washington in chaos, its future sovereign unknown, it is the idea of America that risks being submerged, an idea that much of the world has grown to rely on—and, indeed, has adopted.
From here in London, the U.S. might often have resembled a foreign country linked to its motherland by a common language, but its fundamental nature as a land of freedom and democracy was largely taken for granted. For good or bad, the people were in charge, and power was transferred (or retained) peacefully, because the Constitution said so and Americans would never accept anything less.
Yet across the world, regimes and philosophies now seek the material wealth of the U.S., but without its commitment to democracy and the free, fair, and elected transfer of power. In China and Russia and Turkey and even parts of the European Union, the American idea is being challenged.
If such an idea can be questioned, one is forced to confront deeper questions about the strength of the U.S. itself, as well as the Western world, which is predicated on its power.