World leaders are worried Trump 'permanently' damaged democracy, EU chief says

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World leaders are worried Trump 'permanently' damaged democracy, EU chief says
Germany's Merkel, EU's von der Leyen hold virtual joint news conferenceReuters
  • World leaders are concerned former President Donald Trump did irreversible damage to democracy, according to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
  • "We are worrying about whether democracy itself might have been permanently damaged in the last four years," she said, expressing horror at the Capitol siege.
  • The EU chief said Trump and the Capitol attack showed how important it is to "address the darker sides of the digital world."

Leaders across the world are concerned former President Donald Trump may have done irrevocable damage to democracy, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Tuesday.

"A year ago, my bilateral talks revolved primarily around the question: Would the US government impose punitive tariffs on European carmakers? Today, a year later, we are worrying about whether democracy itself might have been permanently damaged in the last four years," von der Leyen said during a virtual speech at the Davos Agenda summit, hosted by the World Economic Forum.

The EU chief went on to say that the violent insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, which was provoked by Trump, underscored how imperative it is for leaders to "address the darker sides of the digital world."

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"Images like we saw a few weeks ago, when an angry mob stormed the Capitol, were beyond my imagination," von der Leyen said.

World leaders are worried Trump 'permanently' damaged democracy, EU chief says
Rioters clash with police using big ladder trying to enter Capitol building through the front doors.Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

"Like for so many of us, the storming of the Capitol came as a shock to me," von der Leyen went on to say. "We are always quick to say: Democracy and values, they are part of our DNA. And that is true. But we must nurture our democracy every day, and defend our institutions against the corrosive power of hate speech, disinformation, fake news and incitement to violence."

"In a world where polarizing opinions are the loudest, it is a short step from crude conspiracy theories to the death of a police officer," she added, and the Capitol siege "unfortunately" showed the world just how "true" that is.

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Five people were killed as a result of the violence on January 6, including a police officer.

Trump routinely used Twitter to spread disinformation on the US election, including baseless claims of mass voter fraud, which helped set the stage for the deadly violence at the Capitol. He's been permanently banned from the platform.

Prior to the mayhem at the Capitol, Trump engaged in a weekslong effort to overturn the election result. Shortly before his supporters descended upon the Capitol, Trump delivered a lie-filled speech in which he falsely claimed to have won the election and urged his supporters to "fight like hell."

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"If you don't fight like hell you're not going to have a country anymore," Trump said at the time. Trump was impeached in the House in mid-January for inciting the Capitol attack, and his trial is set to begin on February 9.

Von Der Leyen is not alone in her concerns about the long-term impact of Trump's presidency on global democracy. Trump spent years showering dictators with flattery while undermining democratic institutions in the US. From habitually attacking the free press to attempting to overturn a free and fair election, Trump repeatedly skirted democratic norms and mirrored the behavior of authoritarian leaders.

Leaders across the globe condemned Trump over the Capitol siege, and expressed dismay about the consequences for democracy more broadly. "The enemies of democracy will be happy about these unbelievable pictures from Washington, DC," Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, said in a tweet.

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And as the leader of a country as powerful as the US, political scientists have warned that Trump has potentially helped validate democracy-eroding practices from leaders in other parts of the world.

"Trump's push to overturn the election results may undermine democracy abroad by legitimizing anti-democratic behaviors. We have already seen leaders in Hungary, Turkey, and elsewhere emulate Trump's rhetoric about 'fake news' to dismiss criticism," Erica de Bruin, a political scientist at Hamilton College, recently told Insider.

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