Protests in Belarus over President Alexander Lukashenko’s fraudulent victory. Photo Credit: Artem Podrex/Pexels
Despite Joe Biden’s clear and convincing victory, Donald Trump has refused to concede the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election. Since the election, he and his supporters have made baseless claims of widespread voter fraud and have spread conspiracy theories spawned on fringe-media outlets, arguing that the election was “rigged.” None of these claims hold merit; election-officials have found no evidence of fraud and said this election was among the safest and most secure in U.S. history due to the use of paper ballots and voting machines with a verifiable paper trail. Because the United States has an independent judiciary, a free press, and other strong democratic institutions, notwithstanding all the Sturm und Drang, Joe Biden will become president at noon on January 20, 2021. However, not every country has similar safeguards to ensure the peaceful transition of power. In recent years, Eastern European countries such as Russia, Poland, Hungary, and Belarus have experienced democratic backsliding, whose governments now entertain various authoritarian elements. Trump’s refusal to concede emboldens Europe’s autocratic leaders by providing a paradigm for staying in power, no matter the evidence.
Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, has seen a rise of right-wing populism over the last decade. Populism, a political ideology that seeks to remove political elites in order to return power to “the people,” has teetered on the edge of authoritarianism in many Eastern European states. It is easier for leaders with authoritarian ambitions to ride a wave of populist sentiment and say their extra-constitutional actions are giving back to the people, despite actually taking away civil liberties. Countries like Poland and Hungary have seen the demise of a free and fair media presence as their leaders, Andrzej Duda and Viktor Orbán, seek to silence public criticism. Similarly, in Russia Vladimir Putin has amended the constitution so he could continue to run for president nearly indefinitely. In Belarus, protests have been raging for more than one hundred days, as protestors have taken to the streets to denounce the re-election of Alexander Lukashenko following an actual fraudulent election, a leader who has been in power for 26 years.
Throughout Trump’s presidency, he has frequently complimented these leaders, while refusing to condemn their human rights abuses. Trump now appears to be actively taking cues from their authoritarian playbook, as he attempts to delegitimize the results of the 2020 election. While the optimist might dismiss Trump’s refusal to concede as an act of little consequence, this degradation of democratic norms negatively affects democracies around the world. By refusing to concede, Trump sends the message to right-wing populists that they can just cry “foul” in an election that does not go their way. Therefore, the contested transition is Trump’s last gift to autocratic leaders.
Trump empowers Putin, Orbán, Duda, and Lukashenko by:
Degrading America’s Liberal Values
First and foremost, illiberal countries can point to the degradation of America’s liberal values as evidence for its declining power and the inefficiency of democracy, and move to fill that power vacuum with authoritarianism. The United States has been the leading proponent of democracy for decades – of an independent media and judiciary, free and fair elections, and power to the public rather than political leaders. Trump’s antics erodes America’s moral authority and strengthens the autocrats’ arguments that their form of governance is preferable. Putin could not have scripted it any better – the American electoral system is flawed and one can never trust an election. In addition to refusing to congratulate President-elect Biden (at stark contrast to other European leaders), Putin has said that it has been “totally obvious” to him that “there are problems in the U.S. electoral system” and now the rest of the world can see it too. He can and will point to the American electoral system and say that if democracy cannot work in the United States, it cannot work anywhere.
There is also hypocrisy present here. It will be harder to spread democratic ideals to others in Europe and around the globe when the President of the United States is acting illiberally. Frankly, Trump has undercut America’s credibility when calling out bad behavior, and this creates a lasting legacy that cannot be easily undone when Biden comes into office. When Biden or any other American leader tries to reprimand Lukashenko or Putin for the lack of free and fair elections in their countries, these leaders can point to the 63 percent of Republican voters who believe the 2020 election was not free and fair.
Offering A Model for Staying in Power
In addition, autocratic leaders can use the same tactics Trump used as a model to stay in power, leading to further democratic backsliding. Trump’s attempts to throw out thousands of votes in majority-Democrat cities could encourage autocrats to selectively disenfranchise their political opponents’ supporters. Those looking to hang onto power will point to his actions, talking of faulty election machines, votes disappearing, and illegal immigrants voting. At the very least, populist leaders could shed doubt on the legitimacy of their opponent’s win, mirroring Trump’s response. Given the rise of the far-right in Europe preceding Trump’s inauguration in 2016, all the credit cannot be given to Trump here, but populist leaders can take the newly mainstream tactics of an American president for their own corrupt purposes.
Already, Hungarian and Polish state television have amplified Trump’s claims of fraud and suggested the race was not over. At the same time Trump was calling the election rigged, Hungarian leader Orbán was proposing alterations to Hungary’s electoral system to help him stay in power beyond the upcoming 2022 elections. In Belarus, Lukashenko is claiming that the demonstrators who march against his dictatorship are being paid and manipulated by foreign actors, another similar claim that Trump has echoed about his opponent’s supporters.
Legitimizing Conspiracy Theories
Trump’s refusal to concede also legitimizes fringe-conspiracy theories while undermining the media, judiciary, and political opposition, all of which are supposed to provide a check on power. Much of Trump’s claims of voter fraud have been developed by listening to conspiracy theories and sharing these stories on social media. Misinformation is so widespread that it is easy for the ill-informed to discredit actual news sources. Europe’s populists have previously used similar tactics to tamp down and discredit independent media. Orbán has consistently smothered his critics, including pulling advertising from critical outlets and shutting down Népszabadság, Hungary’s largest independent newspaper. Poland has similarly chipped away at the independence of the media, instead using state-run channels to spew pro-government propaganda. This is problematic because a free and independent media serves to hold political leaders accountable and provide transparency. With conspiracy theories and fringe outlets being the norm, democracy falters.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Poland’s far-right Law & Justice Party, who has tried to control the judiciary and remove checks on power, justifies these moves with the same “drain the swamp” message as Trump. Orbán has also undermined the judiciary by creating a separate, administrative court system with handpicked justices on issues related to elections. Both Putin and Lukashenko have promoted violent crackdowns on opposing political parties and independent journalists. With fewer independent institutions that are supposed to help uphold democracy, Eastern Europe will likely slide further into authoritarianism.
Trump’s narrow loss to Biden proves that right-wing populism still has appeal in the United States at the same time it is becoming more entrenched in Europe. Because populism often morphs into nationalism, an antidote might be multilateralism, having countries work together on communal issues. At the same time, the Biden administration should actively engage and export democratic values globally, rather than retrenching inward in the “America First” attitude displayed by the Trump administration. For example, the United States should immediately rejoin the Paris Climate Accords, solidifying its intent to uphold an important institution designed to preserve international peace through fighting climate change. The Accords would show that the United States can still be a strong, liberal partner on the global stage.
Furthermore, Biden must repair democratic institutions at home, specifically rebuilding faith among the American public in the electoral system. It would be beneficial if Democratic and Republican leaders joined together to condemn unsubstantiated claims and rebuild the trust of the American people. If Americans do not support liberalism and democracy, then how can we expect Europeans to buy into this message?
Authoritarian leaders will do whatever it takes to stay in power, and Trump has offered them the excuse to follow his lead. It is in our, and the world’s, best interest for Americans to work together to restore faith in our institutions and our democracy. We should strive to make America that “shining city on a hill” and be an example to others.
 “Joint Statement from Elections Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council and the Election Infrastructure Sector Coordinating Executive Committees,” Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Nov. 12, 2020, https://www.cisa.gov/news/2020/11/12/joint-statement-elections-infrastructure-government-coordinating-council-election.
 Sonam Sheth, “Vladimir Putin wasted no time in weaponizing Trump’s election conspiracies to spread Russian propaganda,” Business Insider, Nov. 23, 2020, https://www.businessinsider.com/putin-weaponizes-trump-election-conspiracies-whataboutism-russia-2020-11.
 Brett Bruen, “Trump’s refusal to concede not only hurts America’s democratic message abroad, it also gives a useful tool to the world’s authoritarians, Business Insider, Nov. 18, 2020, https://www.businessinsider.com/dictators-trump-refuse-concede-voter-fraud-american-election-international-2020-11.
 Nick Laughlin and Peyton Shelburne, “Election Trust Tracker: As States Certify Results, Most Republicans Continue to Doubt the Integrity of the Election,” Morning Consult, Nov. 24, 2020, https://morningconsult.com/form/tracking-voter-trust-in-elections/.
 Brett Bruen, “Trump’s refusal to concede.”
 Anthony Faiola et al., “The world’s populists are losing their White House ally, but global Trumpism is far from over,” The Washington Post, Nov. 8, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/trump-populism-bolsonaro-duterte-orban/2020/11/07/53fcad7a-1e1d-11eb-90dd-abd0f7086a91_story.html.
 Shuan Walker et al., “End of Trump era deals heavy blow to rightwing populist leaders worldwide,” The Guardian, Nov. 11, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/nov/11/end-trump-era-blow-rightwing-populist-leaders-worldwide-biden-victory-brazil-hungary.
 Ian Krastev, “The Apocalyptic Politics of the Populist Right,” The New York Times, Nov. 13, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/13/opinion/trump-concede-election.html.
 Igor Dordevic, “Viktor Orbán’s Authoritarian Playbook,” Atlantic Sentinel, Oct. 25, 2020, https://atlanticsentinel.com/2020/10/viktor-orbans-authoritarian-playbook/.
 Anthony Faiola et al., “The world’s populists are losing their White House ally.”
 Igor Dordevic, “Viktor Orbán’s Authoritarian Playbook.”
 Sonam Sheth, “Vladimir Putin wasted no time.”