In 1939, my grandfather arrived at Ellis Island as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. America was the antithesis of the nations from which he and other immigrants fled — a safe haven where responsible politicians shunned the demagoguery that characterized much of Europe at the time.
To be clear, America was not, and still is not, the “perfect union,” we all aspire it to be. In fact, six months before the Nazis invaded Poland, more than 20,000 people protested at Madison Square Garden with banners that read “Stop Jewish Domination of Christian America.” And yet, for all its warts, America was glorified as the “goldene medina” or “golden land” by Jewish immigrants escaping the persecution they suffered in Europe. The U.S. was venerated for all it had achieved: its two centuries of peaceful transitions of power, its gradual yet enormous expansion of freedom and its long, seemingly solid tradition of civil discourse.
The sun may have set on Trump’s presidency, but the harm he posed to these foundational values and the revered reputation the U.S. has long enjoyed will likely live on. As I sat with my grandmother in Florida weeks ago, watching the violent mob storm the symbol and seat of our democracy, I was confronted with just how far we have fallen in the past four years. Indeed, the events at the Capitol were merely the denouement of a Presidency marked by many calamitous lows for America’s global standing.
Besides alienating our allies and embracing the most repressive of world leaders, Trump continually engaged in a brutish style of politics at home. He rejected the moderation and civility that had long served as the bedrock of American democracy, and cultivated a climate of rage and paranoia. We elected an instinctual tyrant, incapable of accepting the constraints of democratic politics and more concerned with stoking culture wars than uniting us. We indulged cheerleaders in the media and apparatchiks in the White House as they lent credence to Trump’s scapegoating of immigrants and mainstreaming of conspiracy theories, including his fantastical accusations of massive voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
The mob of Trump supporters that descended on the Capitol to overturn President Joe Biden’s legitimate victory, and effectively send our democracy into a death spiral, was the logical end of his vitriolic crusade. In the words of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it was the “tragically predictable result” of extremist grievance fueled by the former president.
Those who sounded the alarm over the past 4 years were consistently dismissed as victims of presumed Trump Derangement Syndrome. CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria defines this malady as a “hatred of Trump so intense that it impairs judgement.” For sure, Democrats do exercise poor judgement when they compare Trump to Hitler or dismiss every policy pursued by the former president, even his policy achievements, as axiomatically moronic or barbaric. The left’s indifference, and occasional hostility, to the historic peace agreements brokered between Israel and its neighbors is a prime example.
Yet to label all who are tough on Trump as deranged would be misguided. If no U.S. president has been ridiculed like Trump, it’s because none have behaved like him. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats are all conservatives or apolitical officials who worked for Trump because they wanted to serve their country. All concluded Trump was “dangerous” — and they were not wrong. We witnessed just how dangerous he was, and may still be, on Jan. 6.
The domestic terrorists, exhorted by Trump to “fight like hell” against a “stolen” election, stormed the U.S. Capitol in a scene reminiscent of a Latin American take over. The magnitude of this event and the message it sent to the rest of the world cannot be overstated. The optics were so appalling that even Senators Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), along with other death-bed converts, broke with Trump and lambasted his role in fomenting the insurrection.
Unfortunately, their conversion came too late. America’s image has dramatically deteriorated since 2016 and the riot was the final nail in an already closed coffin. Our adversaries relished in our political decadence and our allies watched in horror as the U.S. Capitol was attacked by domestic terrorists, some decorated in bizarre costumes, others sporting symbols of Nazism and the Confederacy. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, among a manifold of other world leaders, castigated what they were witnessing on television. The America once extolled by my grandfather as the “goldene medina” has evidently suffered a dramatic fall from grace.
Throughout his tenure, Trump complained the world had no respect for America. He was wrong. America’s most valuable asset abroad was not its military prowess, but its example. Refugees flocked to America in search of a better life and nations sought to replicate our sturdy institutions.
In 1989, many of the post-Soviet countries of Eastern Europe became democracies, partly because they wanted to model the U.S. and solve their disputes through the democratic process as opposed to violence. For all his promises to garner the respect of so-called disrespectful nations, Trump has actually damaged this global allure. The Biden administration can, and must, reestablish the U.S. as the shining, albeit deeply flawed, beacon of democracy it once was. Fortunately, I can think of no one more viable than the current incumbent to heal our divisions, sow faith in our depleted institutions, repair our strained alliances and “restore the soul” of this country.
The Lowy Institute put it most succinctly: “The world still wants to believe in America. But the world needs America to help it believe.”
Joe Beare (23C) is from London.