Far-right European politicians who had found an American superhero in Donald J. Trump joined in the widespread condemnation of the violent siege of the U.S. Capitol, but many refrained from denouncing the president personally and instead asserted that he was a victim of over-exuberant supporters.
“Obviously I am extremely shocked by these images of violence. I think that in a democracy, we have to defend the right to protest but peacefully,” Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Rally party, said in an interview with the France 2 television network. “Any violent act that aims to disrupt the democratic process is inadmissible.”
Like many nationalist European politicians, Le Pen has sought to use Trump and the success of his “Make America Great Again” message to galvanize her own populist movement.
But the shocking images of Trump supporters, many in trademark red hats, rampaging in the Capitol and disrupting congressional proceedings in a melee that led to at least four deaths, has put those politicians in a bind. They were forced to excuse Trump’s role in stoking the unrest, or to admit their affinity for a leader willing to encourage violent insurrection to overturn the results of a democratic election.
Le Pen, who is expected to be a main challenger once again to President Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential election next year, tried to distinguish between the marauders at the Capitol and more mainstream Trump voters.
“There are hundreds of people who are extremists who tried to disrupt a democratic process,” Le Pen said in the television interview. “I wouldn’t confuse them with the 70 million who voted for Trump.”
And yet she acknowledged it was Joe Biden’s election victory — which Le Pen herself had refused to acknowledge until Thursday — that led to the mayhem at the Capitol. Trump, Le Pen said, “didn’t measure the weight of his words on a part of these people who were saddened by the defeat.” She called on him to “condemn in the clearest way what happened.”
Other right-wing politicians similarly denounced the violence and denigrated the rioters as weirdos, while also trying to portray Trump as a peacemaker.
“We are talking about something unacceptable, so unacceptable that it was implemented by a series of fanatics who in some cases border on the ridiculous, starting with that one who seemed to have come out of the Village People,” said Nicola Procaccini, a member of the European Parliament from the Brothers of Italy party.
“We are talking about something between the tragic and the folkloric,” Procaccini said, adding: “Parliaments in any nation, especially in a nation like the United States, represent a bulwark that must be protected from any kind of violence.”
However, Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the Brothers of Italy who is also now president of the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists group, tried to excuse Trump from responsibility for the attack on the Capitol.
“I hope that the violence will stop immediately as requested by President Trump,” Meloni tweeted on Wednesday — a comment that quickly drew derision given Trump’s reluctance to condemn the violence and his insistence, even when he did so, that the election had been stolen. Procaccini defended Meloni’s tweet, saying, it “condemned all forms of violence and noted that Trump himself had said to go home.”
But in Europe — the Continent of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Ceaușescu — images of Trump supporters wearing shirts that said “Camp Auschwitz” and “6MWE” — an abbreviation of “Six million wasn’t enough” — only stirred memories of dictatorship, political violence and repression that many thought they would never see echoed on U.S. soil.
Many European leaders continued to voice outrage and dismay at the events in Washington, and some used the moment to call for vigilance against extremism.
“There are Trumps everywhere, so each and everyone should defend their Capitol,” former European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted.
During a news conference, Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa noted his country’s own history of dictatorship and said: “Mr. Trump is already a thing of the past.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel put the blame for the violence squarely on Trump, saying: “I deeply regret that President Trump has not conceded defeat since November, and again refused to do so yesterday. Doubts about the outcome of the election have been stoked, and that set the atmosphere.”
But there were signs that Wednesday’s mayhem had caused serious damage, not just to the reputation of the U.S. but also to the credibility of Western democracy as a whole. That led to brazen criticism from regimes with far worse track records on democracy, rule of law or human rights.
“What we saw last night and today in the United States showed how weak and failed Western democracy is,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Thursday, according to Iranian news agencies. Speaking of Trump, Rouhani added, “When an unhealthy person takes power, he creates many problems for his country and the world, and I hope this lesson will be an example.”
Russia’s response was even more cutting. Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the foreign ministry, first seized the opportunity to model the answer the Kremlin would prefer whenever Russia’s actions are called into doubt.
“The events in Washington are an internal U.S. affair,” Zakharova said.
But she then proceeded to denounce the U.S. election system and the American media, in a statement that offered layers of trolling by implicitly supporting Trump’s claims.
“We again draw attention to the fact that the electoral system in the United States is archaic,” Zakharova said. “It does not meet modern democratic standards, creating opportunities for numerous violations, and the American media has become an instrument of political struggle.”
A U.S. diplomat in Europe said Trump’s term had badly damaged American credibility abroad.
“Promoting democracy and the rule of law has been a central goal of U.S. diplomacy for decades,” the diplomat said. “While this has remained so on paper, anti-democratic rhetoric and actions out of Washington over the past few years seriously damage our credibility. Even before the events of January 6, interlocutors from anti-democratic and authoritarian leaning countries were increasingly asking, ‘who are you to lecture us about democracy?’ And the attention and affection some of them received from the administration often sent the implicit message that these issues were secondary.”
The diplomat added, “What happened in Washington yesterday will take that sentiment to a new level and absolutely benefits the Russian and Chinese narrative [that] democracy is fundamentally flawed, and therefore the West has no right to judge them or impose standards of freedom or openness.”
In Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has held a positive view of Trump, the pro-government news portal Origo on Thursday referred to the U.S. election as “suspicious” and insisted that “Donald Trump from the first moment condemned all violent movement.”
Tamás Deutsch, a member of the European Parliament from Orbán’s Fidesz party, posted on Facebook: “Before, Black Lives Matter, now Nothing Matters. United States of Anarchy. That’s it.”
Virginie Joron, a French MEP from Le Pen’s National Rally, said she was “shocked” to see “how easy it is to enter the Capitol,” and blamed “extremists who mess around” for the violence, but she said Trump had limited influence in the EU.
“This will not have any impact on our policies and ideas here in Europe,” Joron said. “The U.S. are not our true-blue model. We’ve never had any direct relationship with Trump. We are for peace, and certainly not for division. There are many scars in the U.S., and we, in Europe, don’t have the same history or culture.”
However, Joron defended Trump’s legacy and said he had succeeded by managing “to convince people by putting in place a protectionist policy,” and had won tens of millions of supporters “many of whom look like our supporters because they are workers and people who work in difficult and precarious jobs.”
Marco Zanni, the leader of Italy’s far-right League party in the European Parliament, denounced the violence but acknowledged supporting many of Trump’s positions.
“Clearly we feel closer to the U.S. Republican Party positions, and share many of the White House’s political choices in the last four years,” Zanni said. “Nothing, however, can justify the use of violence and the images of yesterday night, which we would have preferred not to see.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen insisted that she had faith in American democracy on Thursday and that the EU looked forward to working with President-elect Biden. She also issued a more forceful rebuke of Trump.
“What happened yesterday in Washington didn’t come out of the blue,” von der Leyen told reporters. “We have seen over the years what this increasing polarization means, this flood of misinformation and above all the contempt for democratic institutions, values and rules. And every president is responsible for his words until the last days of his office. Yesterday we could see how words become deeds.”
Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting.
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