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How the government shutdown debacle looked to the rest of the world

Republicans “aren’t capable of doing the first task of a government,” wrote one French reporter.

Trump Addresses March For Life Participants From The White House Rose Garden Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The US government shutdown was, of course, massive international news — it’s essentially the world’s most powerful country and its largest economy going haywire. How does this chaos look through international eyes?

To find out, I spent the morning reading press coverage from a number of countries — from neighbors like Canada and Mexico to European allies to state-run media in Russia and China. What I found was a remarkable convergence on a single theme: The shutdown happened because there is something deeply wrong with the American political system.

“Canadians like to think their system of governance is better than the American one. If they want more evidence, they need only look at what’s happening now — a government shutdown in Washington — and be thankful their system doesn’t allow the same shenanigans,” writes Lawrence Martin, a columnist for Canada’s right-leaning Globe and Mail newspaper.

Reporters in democratic nations like Britain and France are stunned; authoritarian propagandists are downright giddy that America’s political system could collapse into chaos so easily.

Some of the blame seems to be apportioned to President Trump and the Republican Party in general, and some to the basic design of the American political system. But overall, there is a sense that the shutdown has exposed something very wrong about the United States.

“The president’s own people are in a state of rolling confusion”

A lot of the international press was interested in the nuts and bolts of the shutdown, especially as it affected their citizens’ travel plans. “The US Embassy in Ballsbridge, Dublin has clarified that offices there are open as scheduled despite the US government shutdown,” Ireland’s state broadcaster RTE clarified.

But the world, like many Americans, was also interested in playing the blame game: Who is responsible for this, and why?

Trump came in for a lot of the blame, personally. “No president until now has suffered a ‘shutdown’ when their party controls both houses of Congress. Trump is the first,” El Universal, Mexico’s largest paper, helpfully explained.

Ed Luce, an op-ed writer for Britain’s Financial Times, blamed the failure on the president’s policy ignorance and general incompetence.

“Mr. Trump vowed he would be a dealmaker — that was his main selling point. Yet he has a habit of wriggling out of any oral deal he has struck,” Luce writes. “In addition to being unable to uphold a deal with Democrats, Mr Trump disagrees with crucial White House officials. The president’s own people are in a state of rolling confusion about what he wants.”

Others looked beyond Trump personally, instead seeing the fact that both sides are willing to shut down the government as evidence of something gone wrong in the United States. You saw that narrative both in Martin’s Globe and Mail Column and a dispatch from Pierre-Yves Dugua, the Washington correspondent for France’s Le Figaro.

“If the shutdown is suspended today, the Democrats will have showed, during the weekend of the first anniversary of Donald Trump’s entry into the White House, that Republicans who control both chambers of Congress aren’t capable of doing the first task of a government: to vote to fund the essential functions of the state,” Dugua writes.

This broader narrative — that America’s political system is fundamentally broken — was the dominant theme in authoritarian countries as well. China’s state-run Xinhua News Service, which takes basically every opportunity it can get to criticize American democracy as weak and defective, blamed the shutdown on “chronic flaws” in the American political system.

“The Western democratic system is hailed by the developed world as near perfect and the most superior political system to run a country,” Xinhua’s Liu Chang writes, with practically palpable irony.

Chang is wrong to indict the entirety of Western democracy — he is a propagandist, after all — but not entirely wrong when it comes to the American system. In most parliamentary systems, government shutdowns are not possible: There’s nothing like a filibuster that allows a minority party to block essential legislation. If there aren’t the votes to pass a budget, new elections are held within months while current government funding levels are maintained. After new elections, the new government can almost always pass a budget.

Hence the level of shock not just from Chinese state-run media, which has an incentive to make America look bad, but from reporters for outlets in democracies. This level of dysfunction literally should not be possible; it is incomprehensible to many of their readers that government could function this poorly.

Of course, not every foreign look at the shutdown was so on point. RT, Russia’s English-language propaganda outlet, interviewed a contributor to the right-wing conspiracy theory site Infowars named Patrick Henningsen.

Henningsen argued that the whole shutdown crisis is a media-driven distraction from what he sees as the true scandal, which is Democrats lying about Trump’s ties to Russia. He also insisted that the shutdown proved it was time to shut down the US government for good.

“The US is bankrupt as a country,” Henningsen said. “They should be in receivership right now.”

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