Trump and his allies warned, with classic demagoguery, of the prospect of a Joe Biden presidency with defunded police departments and invasions of the suburbs. They also conjured a kind of alternate reality, wrote my colleague, Toluse Olorunippa, one where “the coronavirus has been conquered by presidential leadership, the economy is at its pre-pandemic levels, troops are returning home, and the president is an empathetic figure who supports immigration and would never stoke the nation’s racial grievances.”
That is not the America that actually exists. Critics can credibly claim that Trump has goaded hard-line supporters into taking violent action against protesters. All the while, the United States inches toward 200,000 coronavirus-related deaths, maintains the highest number of infection cases in the world and has seen its economy crash by a third of its GDP. But none of this may matter for a president who sees stoking the country’s polarization as a pathway to reelection.
In a survey published last week, Pew found that Americans stood apart from counterparts in 13 other industrialized nations in their overwhelming belief that the coronavirus pandemic has further divided their country. That is a feature of the Trump presidency: “His incessant lying has helped to create a political culture in which wild conspiracy theories flourish and there is no consensus on basic facts, making informed legislative debate and compromise all but impossible,” noted a Post editorial.
Trump’s acceptance speech “was a Rorschach test for a divided America,” wrote Hussein Ibish in the National, an Abu Dhabi-based daily. “His supporters will see an impressive spectacle and a strong case for re-election. His opponents will see a distillation of all that is most dangerous in his administration — a l’etat, c’est moi autocratic hubris.”
Many foreign observers watching the convention called out this distinctly Trumpian “hubris.” That included America’s well-wishers: “This Republican party dances to whatever tunes come into Trump’s head. What is missing is a link to any coherent plan for his second term,” wrote Edward Luce of the Financial Times. “For the first time in its history, the party did not publish an agenda this year. It simply referred back to Trump’s 2016 campaign … The one-page list of ‘resolutions’ consisted of a series of vague bullet points, allowing Trump leeway to decide what they would really be. The truth, as George Orwell would have put it, is whatever Trump decides it will be.”
But also its putative adversaries: “The convention demonstrates that under the strong influence of the Trump administration, the whole Republican Party is turning from a party of elites into a street gang,” sniped Global Times, a provocative state-run Chinese outlet. “The convention looks like a large party of third-tier talk show actors.”
Some analysts dwelled on the limits of Trump’s political rhetoric, which may seem effective in a U.S. election campaign but offered little by way of meaningful solutions. “Theirs is a politics of ego, domination and control that presumes simply to impose their position on the world,” wrote Waleed Aly, a columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald and lecturer in politics at Australia’s Monash University, referring to right-wing nationalist leaders like Trump. “Faced with COVID-19, they’re likely to decide they aren’t going to be pushed around by some stupid virus and respond as though it’s a battle of wills.”
“Right now, this particular style of emperor has no clothes,” added Aly. “He fails on two fronts: first in the sheer weight of death he facilitates, but, second, he cannot even comfort or console because that requires him to acknowledge a pain he isn’t preventing, and his denial will never allow that.”
Much of the world has seen through the Trumpist mirage for quite some time. “What is finally being demonstrated with the novel coronavirus calamity is that Trump has left nothing in its place — that the residue of his vanity-driven recklessness is malfunction,” Canadian columnist Lawrence Martin wrote this March in the Globe and Mail, as Trump floundered in the initial throes of the pandemic. “With his disastrous televised address to the nation on the virus as exhibit A, what is being demonstrated is that the emperor has no clothes.”
“The Republicans are celebrating how wonderfully well the country is doing, never mind that Covid-19 deaths in the US could reach 310,000 by the end of the year, and that the country is deep in recession,” wrote Andrew Sheng in the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English-language daily. “Only the stock market, buoyed by unprecedented quantitative easing, seems to be celebrating too.”
Sheng added that the rest of the world should have “no illusions” that the United States, “without deep and painful reforms” will be able to assert the kind of paramount global leadership it has in the past. “We should thank Trump for disabusing us of the ideas of American exceptionalism,” he wrote.
Still, numerous commentators hope that a Trump defeat in November may lead to a kind of restoration. A potential Biden administration would revive the United States’ role in the global alliance system, meaning, for example, America’s swift return to the Paris climate agreement and international efforts to transition toward a carbon-neutral economy.
“If this happens, Trump’s noisy denial of scientific evidence will be remembered as a minor blip,” wrote Jean Pisani-Ferry, a senior fellow at the Brussels-based Bruegel think tank.
But there are deeper forces at work that may be harder to reverse. “It is by no means obvious that if Biden wins, he will be able to restore the trust of America’s international partners,” added Pisani-Ferry. “For all its aberrations, Trump’s presidency may indicate a deeper U.S. reaction to the shift in global economic power, and reflect the American public’s rejection of the foreign responsibilities their country assumed for three-quarters of a century.”