PARIS — Watching the non-stop coverage of the U.S. election, a line from Shakespeare kept flicking at my mind. It's a grim image from that tragic tale of love, hate and disinformation, Romeo and Juliet: "A plague o" both your houses! They have made worms' meat of me." Now, the graphic allegory was unfolding on my computer screen in real time: No matter which candidate wins — and with plagues of our own spreading all around — we risk making worms' meat of democracy.
After growing up in Massachusetts, I've lived abroad ever since reaching voting age, and always dutifully sent my absentee ballot from Canada or France. It used to be a moment of clarity and civic pride, but dropping my vote in the mail, and waiting for the results, has felt very different in 2020.
The Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, is of course far better than the alternative. But after five decades in Washington and two weeks shy of his 78th birthday, he hardly inspires — and apparently didn't excite enough voters to provoke the predicted Democratic landslide across the country in the face of Republican mismanagement of the pandemic.
But make no mistake, this election season's real plague is President Donald Trump. An election night report from the international election observer body, OSCE, gave an assessment usually reserved for countries with scant experience in representative democracy: "Baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent president, including on election night, harm public trust in democratic institutions."
President Donald Trump upped the ante further Thursday night as challenger Joe Biden approached victory, launching a diatribe of falsehoods from the White House that combined the petulance of an 8-year-old sore loser and a demagogue's tactics for inciting civil war.
This election season's real plague is President Donald Trump.
The damage for a country that maintains its superpower status is bound to spread abroad. Other powers often criticized by Washington for their substandard democracies seem to be reveling in America's current upheaval. As Trump demands the vote counting to stop, as his social media posts are published with disinformation warnings on Twitter and Facebook, China's Xi Jinping and Russia's President Vladimir Putin are given more ammunition. "Xi and Putin have held onto power by convincing their citizens that their systems of government are superior to the democracies of the West," reads a recent article in the Hong Kong-based South Morning China Post.
Even other democratic nations are shaking their heads in disbelief. An op-ed in Foreign Policy by Barkha Dutt, a New Delhi-based journalist, is titled "India Would Have Counted the Votes Already." Meanwhile, French daily Le Monde published an editorial Wednesday entitled "The United States, A Democracy In Danger," while Berlin-based Die Weltdescribes "a certain weariness with the institutions of the republic, just like in Ancient Rome."
The very principles that the United States has been so used to boasting about, the system of government it has so zealously prosthelytized, are now being undermined by the way we've conducted the most basic function of an open and modern society. I've always rolled my eyes at my fellow Americans who describe our country as the "leader of the free world." With any remnant of that status vanishing, we're all holding our breath to see what comes next.