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Foreigner observers reflect on chaos over US election

Many struggle to understand the growing mistrust of democratic institutions among voters.

Temporary employees of the City Commissioner's office counted votes at Philadelphia's convention center.
Temporary employees of the City Commissioner's office counted votes at Philadelphia's convention center.Ryan Collerd/Bloomberg

These are challenging times for foreigners whose job it is to interpret American politics.

As President Trump has used a string of maneuvers to attack the election he lost as fraudulent and illegitimate, many observers are perplexed as they watch the country they have known and admired floundering in a constitutional crisis and growing mistrust of democratic institutions.

For many, it is a struggle to maintain confidence that America's principles and ideals will prevail.

“People who know the US are shocked it’s going on so long,” said Michal Baranowski, the German Marshall Fund director of the office in Warsaw, of the post-election uncertainty and Trump’s refusal to concede.

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“We still say it will work out, because of the strength of US institutions. But, man, it’s taking a long time, and I’m beginning to worry.”

Some foreign observers are also struggling to explain the US political drama to their baffled friends and colleagues.

Beyond the usual questions about the Electoral College and why anyone cares about the vote in Broward County, Fla., Barry Eidlin, a sociologist at McGill University in Montreal, keeps getting asked whether a country considered the beacon of democracy will have a peaceful transition of power come January.

“This year, it’s gone haywire, sort of on the Bush versus Gore level,” said Eidlin, a dual citizen who splits his time between California and Quebec. “It’s been a source of puzzlement and bewilderment. It’s on the level of, ‘what on earth is happening?’ It’s definitely a more challenging place to explain.”

After a delay of more than two weeks, the Trump administration officially allowed the transition to the Biden administration to begin late Monday. But Trump promised to continue challenging the election results, saying "I believe we will prevail!"

The election that the president and his allies are disputing bears little resemblance to the observations by a mission sent over from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The United States is a member, and the State Department invited the group of more than 100 observers to come watch. In an interim report released the day after the vote, the organization praised poll workers and lambasted Trump for sowing doubt on the election’s legitimacy. Their criticism of the president has not ebbed.

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Trump’s accusations distinguish this election from the previous eight the organization has observed, said Kari Henriksen, a member of Norway’s Parliament who headed the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s group of observers.

“People have big expectations of the US as a good, functional democracy,” she said. “Therefore, it is astonishing that we experience this kind of mistrust from a president when the US is the leading country in the world regarding democracy. That is one of the issues that makes this very, very special.”

Henriksen praised the enthusiasm of voters this year and the diligence of election workers in polling stations where the mission was allowed to observe.

"They were all so concerned and dedicated to being proper and counting very seriously," she said. "That was one of the strongest reflections I had after the elections. It was a strong democracy among the people, and election workers, to make this right and let their voices be heard."

Even as some leading Republicans have started to publicly criticize Trump's strategy, foreign analysts are looking at the long-term impact of the post-election impasse.

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Krzysztof Pelc, a political science professor at McGill University, said Trump's refusal to admit he lost and the GOP's reluctance to publicly rebuke him suggest that the Trump phenomenon will not end when he leaves office.

"The spectacle of the past weeks implies that even if the White House becomes more open to greater cooperation with its allies, it may simply be unable to act on those good intentions," he said.

“The great lesson that US allies have drawn from the past four years is that the American ideals of democratic freedom and openness rest on a fragile basis. American political institutions have proven more delicate than most international observers thought. As a result, we are always one election away from US commitments coming undone.”

The final report by election observers is not expected before late December or January. But already, Henriksen is calling the mistrust engendered by the White House “a pity” for American democracy, and the world.

“It’s important for Americans, for people in the rest of the world, to fight for democracy,” she said. “This is not anything that comes by itself. Democracy has to be fought for, again and again.”