Most countries lost patience long ago. The erratic outbursts of President Donald Trump were unacceptable to allies when they were not simply insulting. Even rivals like China and Russia reeled at the president’s gut-driven policy lurches. Trump said in 2016 that America must be “more unpredictable.” He was true to his word. For Latin America, this ingredient was largely used by some of the region’s populist leaders. As The Economist put it, Biden, “a post-populist president,” will hit head-on with a region where “populism has recently flourished.”
The sudden infatuation with North Korea’s Stalinist leader, Kim Jong Un, the kowtowing to President Vladimir Putin of Russia, the “Chinese virus” obsession, the enthusiasm for the fracturing of the European Union, and the apparent abandonment of core American democratic values were so shocking that Trump’s departure on Wednesday from the White House is widely viewed with relief.
The sheen is off America, its democratic ideals hollowed. Trump’s imprint on the world will linger. While passionate denunciations are widespread, there is a legacy of Trumpism that in some circles won’t easily fade. Through his “America First” obsession, he galvanized other nations to put themselves first, too. They will not soon fall back into line behind the United States. The domestic fracture that Trump sharpened will endure, undermining the projection of American power.
“Trump is a criminal, a political pyromaniac who should be sent to criminal court,” Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s foreign minister, said in a radio interview. “He’s a person who was elected democratically but who is not interested in democracy in the slightest.”
Such language about an American president from a European ally would have been unthinkable before Trump made outrage the leitmotif of his presidency, along with an assault on truth. His denial of a fact — a defeat in the November election — was seen by leaders including Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, as the spark to the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters.
A mob amok in the inner sanctum of American democracy looked to many countries like Rome sacked by the Visigoths. America, to foreign observers, has fallen. Trump’s reckless disruption, in the midst of a pandemic, has bequeathed to Joe Biden, the incoming president, a great global uncertainty.
“Biden needs to tackle the restoration of democracy at home in a humble way that allows Europeans to say we have similar problems, so let’s get out of this together,” Nathalie Tocci, an Italian political scientist, said in an interview. “With Trump, we Europeans were suddenly the enemy.”
Trump’s so-called friends
Still, to the last, Trump’s nationalism had its backers. They ranged from the majority of Israelis, who liked his unconditional support, to aspiring autocrats from Hungary to Brazil who saw in him the charismatic leader of a counterrevolution against liberal democracy.
Elsewhere the support for Trump was ideological. He was the symbol of a great nationalist and autocratic lurch. He personified a revolt against Western democracies, portrayed as the place where family, church, nation and traditional notions of marriage and gender go to die. He resisted mass migration, diversity and the erosion of white male dominance.
One of Trump’s boosters, the nationalist Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, claimed this month that in the U.S. election, “There were people who voted three, four times, dead people voted.” In an illustration of Trump’s role as an enabler of autocrats, Bolsonaro went on to question the integrity of Brazil’s voting system.
Alongside Bolsonaro, Mexico’s Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador took a month to recognize Biden’s victory. When AMLO talked to Biden, in December, he made a point of praising the departing president.
This global cultural battle will continue because the conditions of its eruption — insecurity, disappearing jobs, resentment in societies made still more unequal by the impact of COVID-19 — persist from France to Latin America. The Trump phenomenon also persists. His tens of millions of supporters are not about to vanish.
As Simon Schama, a British historian, has observed, “When truth perishes so does freedom.” Trump, for whom truth did not exist, leaves a political stage where liberty is weakened. An emboldened Russia and an assertive China are more strongly placed than ever to mock democracy and push agendas hostile to liberalism.
Toward China, Trump’s policy was so incoherent that Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, was left appealing to Starbucks, which has thousands of stores in China, to improve strained U.S.-China relations. Xi wrote last week to the company’s former chief executive, Howard Schultz, to “encourage him” to help with “the development of bilateral relations,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
Trump’s approach was erratic but his criticism coherent. China, with its surveillance state, wants to overtake America as the world’s great power by midcentury, presenting the Biden administration with perhaps its greatest challenge. Biden aims to harness all the world’s democracies to confront China. But Trump’s legacy is reluctance among allies to line up behind the United States whose word is now worth less. It seems inevitable that the European Union, India, and Japan will all have their own China policies.
“As president, Joe Biden will continue to monitor China’s growing role in the Latin American and Caribbean region, including in sectors with considerable strategic and security-related implications. Biden’s approach to competing with China will also focus on rebuilding US standing in the region, however, through respectful and collaborative engagement with Latin American and Caribbean nations, and through the development of a hemispheric agenda that stimulates regional growth and presents a critical alternative to Chinese economic activity,” said Margaret Myers, director of the Asia & Latin America Program of the Inter-American Dialogue, a U.S.-based think tank focusing on the region, in a statement about the Inauguration Day.
In the same statement, Michael Camilleri, director of the Rule of Law program of the think tank stressed that “Joe Biden brings a deeper knowledge of Latin America and the Caribbean to the presidency than any US leader since the end of the Cold War.”
According to him, “Biden’s appreciation of the region’s strategic importance and his commitment to its advancement will be crucial as Latin America works to recover from the devastating blow of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, the Biden Administration will expect that its partners in the Americas share its principles on priorities such as mitigating climate change, combating corruption, and protecting democracy and human rights.”
During Trump’s administration, the U.S. exited the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Iran nuclear agreement and planned to leave the World Health Organization. He stood the postwar American-led order on its head. Even if the Biden administration moves fast to reverse some of these decisions, as it will, trust will take years to restore.
On Wednesday, in his Inauguration speech, Biden was all about union and “lowering the temperature.” He knows what lies ahead. Experts say that he has the most urgent matter to solve: the COVID-19 sanitary crisis. But as the vaccine’s geopolitics has shown in recent weeks, this will also require a new stance towards the world. “We will face this challenge as one nation; we will go through this together. The world is watching. So here is my message to everyone outside our borders. America has been tested, and we came out stronger. We are going to rebuild our alliances, not for the challenges of yesterday, but the challenges of today and tomorrow. We will govern by the power of our example,” said Biden.