Mainstream political leaders of some of America’s closest Western allies gasped as the news broke that Donald Trump had been elected as the new leader of the free world.
The French ambassador to the United States tweeted, “A world is crumbling before our eyes. Vertigo.” Germany’s foreign minister lamented that “US foreign policy will be less predictable for us,” and warned, “Nothing will be easier. Much will be harder.” Former Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt called it a “year of double disaster of the West,” referring to the equally stunning Brexit vote.
But where some leaders saw disaster, others saw a milestone to celebrate — and the most potent validation yet of their own beliefs.
Russian President Vladimir Putin — no doubt ecstatic that the candidate with a decidedly pro-Kremlin outlook had beaten the woman he once said “has no soul” — sent Trump a congratulatory telegram expressing confidence that Trump’s win would lead to "a constructive dialogue between Moscow and Washington on the principles of equality, mutual respect and real consideration for each other's position."
Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right and anti-immigrant Front National party, triumphantly proclaimed that Trump’s victory was “not the end of the world,” as many other European leaders clearly saw it, but rather “the end of a world.” The Dutch anti-Islam populist politician Geert Wilders also expressed his elation on Twitter, calling Trump’s victory “historic” and a “revolution,” and promising, “We too will give our country back to the Dutch!”
Cambodia’s authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has maintained his firm grip on power in the country for more than three decades by brutally cracking down on political dissent, wrote a message on his official Facebook page congratulating Trump and reiterating his support for the president-elect. “American voters have shown their choice to elect your excellency. ... My support for your candidacy is not wrong either,” he wrote.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who over the past decade has systematically transformed Turkish democracy into his own personal autocratic fiefdom, said in a speech in Istanbul that he hoped “that this choice of the American people will lead to beneficial steps being taken for the world concerning basic rights and freedoms, democracy and developments in our region.”
Erdogan and Trump already have one important belief in common: Each has spoken warmly of Putin and signaled that they would prefer Syrian President Bashar al-Assad retain power despite killing hundreds of thousands of his own citizens during the country’s brutal civil war.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who stole power from Egypt’s democratically elected government in a military coup in June 2014 and since then has violently cracked down on dissent and free speech in the country, said he “looks forward to the presidency of President Donald Trump to inject a new spirit into the trajectory of Egyptian-American relations.”
In a later statement, Sisi’s office bragged that the Egyptian president had been the first world leader to reach Trump by phone and personally congratulate him.
Nigel Farage, the acting leader of the UK Independence Party whose anti-immigrant and anti-European rhetoric was hugely influential in the pushing the British vote to leave the European Union, tweeted: “I hand over the mantle to @RealDonaldTrump! Many congratulations. You have fought a brave campaign.” He also tweeted, “What we are witnessing is the end of a period of big business and big politics controlling our lives.”
This stark disparity between these two responses is no accident. It reflects the deep global divide between two fundamentally different, and competing, visions of the world: a vision of a more open, tolerant, and interconnected world where borders and identities are fluid and cultural diversity is embraced; and a vision of a world defined by walls and borders erected to separate groups along strict lines of national, ethnic, religious, and cultural identity in which outsiders and diverse views are often met with fear and suspicion.
Donald Trump’s victory, as Le Pen proudly noted, represents the latest — albeit one of the most dramatic and potentially consequential — blow to the progressive, liberal vision of the world that has defined US and European policy for nearly a generation. Trump’s constant drumbeat of populist, anti-immigrant rhetoric and his narrow America-first approach to foreign policy closely align with the policy views of his populist fellow travelers in Europe like Le Pen and Farage.
But even more profoundly, his fundamental lack of respect for basic liberal democratic principles like rule of law and freedom of the press put him squarely in the camp of authoritarian leaders like Russia’s Putin and Turkey’s Erdogan.
That a man whose politics most closely align with such characters has now been elected to lead the United States of America may not, as Le Pen proclaimed, truly mark the end of the liberal vision of the world, but it certainly represents a severe blow to it.