There’s a lot of shock and horror about Donald Trump’s refusal to say during Wednesday night’s debate that he’d accept the result of the Nov. 8 vote. The outcry overstates the danger this poses to American democracy. European democracies have been dealing with this kind of threat in recent years, and have survived nicely.
After its candidate Norbert Hofer lost the May 22 presidential election by 30,863 votes, Austria’s anti-immigrant Freedom Party challenged the result and the nation’s constitutional court overturned it. It ruled that mail-in ballots had been treated improperly in most electoral districts: Opened earlier than allowed by law or handled by unauthorized people. The election was supposed to be re-run this month, but it has been postponed again until December because it was discovered that adhesive seals on postal ballots were coming unglued.
On Oct. 17, the four opposition parties of Montenegro — mostly opposed to the government’s foreign-policy affinity for the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization — refused to recognize the results of the previous day’s general election, which the governing party apparently won with 41 percent of the vote. They spoke of massive abuses and a police intimidation campaign. The government countered with claims that the Kremlin had financed the anti-NATO opposition. Sound familiar?
The Austrian and Montenegrin populists are those countries’ Trumpists. It’s not unusual for them to challenge election results. Trump is doing what the same breed of politician does in Europe without being accused of undermining democracy. In its ruling, the Austrian constitutional court stressed that it was overturning the election result to strengthen, not weaken, trust in democratic institutions.
At this point, Americans are probably wondering if I’m seriously comparing their country to tiny, relatively young democracies such as Austria and Montenegro. The former, after all, has been a republic for less than 100 years with a break for Nazi rule, and the latter has been a separate country for only 10 years.
“We’ve been around for 240 years,” Hillary Clinton declared proudly in response to Trump’s stated intention to reserve judgment on the vote’s outcome until it takes place. “We’ve had free and fair elections. We’ve accepted the outcomes when we may not have liked them.”
That argument has been undermined by recent events in the U.K., a country that has been electing parliaments for more than 300 years. Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K. Independence Party, who has actually campaigned with Trump despite claiming to disagree with him on a number of issues, was one of the biggest champions of the U.K.’s vote to leave the EU. Like Trump, he prepared for a defeat at the polls: He said a narrow loss wouldn’t be conclusive. “In a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way,” Farage told the Daily Mirror. “If the Remain campaign win two-thirds to one-third, that ends it.”
Had the Brexit vote gone against them, the nationalists would have fought on, probably forcing recounts and in any case calling for a new referendum.
Trump-like politicians in Europe often say creepy things and are beset with personal problems. Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache got in trouble a few years ago for calling Austrian nationalists “the new Jews” who are persecuted by the left and the liberal press. French National Front leader Marine Le Pen has made nastier statements than Trump about Muslims, and she’s fought to distance herself from her anti-Semitic father, the party’s founder. Flamboyant Farage doesn’t just match Trump’s rhetoric — he has a reputation as a hard drinker and a ladies’ man. Boris Johnson, another prominent Brexiter and now the U.K.’s foreign minister, is famous for insulting foreign leaders and entire countries. He’s also fathered a daughter out of wedlock and had a number of affairs, which he — like Trump with the recent accusations of sexual misconduct — at first denied.
Clinton recently penned an op-ed about American exceptionalism for Time magazine. “Most of all, America is indispensable — and exceptional — because of our values,” she wrote. Trump apparently doesn’t believe that, and no wonder: He’s living proof that, value-wise and politically, much of the U.S. is just like Europe, and it doesn’t matter what part of Europe — the west with its venerable democratic traditions or the younger, more tumultuous east and south.
By that yardstick, there’s nothing so exceptional about Trump, either. He is part of a backlash against globalism and ascendant anti-racist and feminist values. Those who lead that backlash fight hard and challenge rules everywhere.
One could say that Trump is remarkable for getting as close to the White House as he has, but that should be written off to the peculiarities of the U.S. winner-take-all political system. He didn’t start gaining majorities in Republican primary elections until most of his rivals dropped out, and a European parliamentary democracy probably would have held him to a 20 percent result — just about the current limit for such politicians in Europe’s important votes (Brexit and, to a lesser degree, the Austrian election were exceptions). That’s because the U.S. is unexceptional in one more important respect: Like most European democracies, it appears to be capable of defending its rules and its dominant values against populist backlash. Clinton’s advantage in the polls is a clear sign of that similarity.