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On November 19 1919, the US Senate repudiated the Versailles Treaty. With that decision, the US withdrew its might from maintaining what had been agreed in the aftermath of the first world war, leaving this task to the British and French, who lacked both the will and the means to do so. The second world war followed. After that conflict, the US played a far more productive role. Today, the world is still in many ways the one the US made. But for how much longer will that be the case? And what might follow it? The outcome of the next presidential election might answer these questions, not just decisively, but, alas, very badly.
Recent polls suggest that almost 55 per cent of US voters disapprove of Joe Biden’s performance. They also suggest that Trump is slightly ahead of Biden in head-to-head polling before the election now a year away. Finally, they suggest that Trump is ahead of Biden in five of the six most important “battleground” states. In all, a Trump victory is clearly and disturbingly plausible. (See charts.)
What would that mean? The most important answer is that the US, not just the world’s most powerful democracy, but its saviour in the 20th century, is no longer committed to democratic norms. The most fundamental of such norms is that power has to be won in free and fair elections. Whether US presidential elections are “fair” is debatable. But they do have rules. Efforts by the incumbent to overthrow those rules amount to insurrection. That Trump attempted to do so is not debatable. Neither is the absence of evidence of fraud to support his attempted coup. He is properly under indictment. Yet he might still win a presidential election. One reason why he might do so is that close to 70 per cent of people who identify as Republicans say they believe his lies. This is shocking, though, alas, not that surprising.
What would another Trump presidency mean for the US, beyond an endorsement of a man who attempted to overthrow the constitution? Obviously, the answer would depend partly on the balance in Congress. Yet it would be wrong to draw additional comfort from how he behaved last time. Then he relied on quite traditional figures from the military and business. Next time will be different. “Maga” is now a cult with a sizeable number of believers.
A crucial domestic plan of Trump’s is to replace the career civil service with loyal servants of the president. The excuse is the alleged existence of a “deep state”, by which critics mean knowledgeable career civil servants whose loyalty is to the law and the state, not to the person in power. One reason this is objectionable is that modern government cannot run without such people. The bigger reason is that if the intelligence, homeland security and internal revenue services, the military, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice are subservient to the whims of the head of state, one has autocracy. Yes, it’s that simple. With a vengeful head of state, abuses of power could be pervasive. This would not be the US we have known. It might be more like Viktor Orbán’s Hungary or even Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey.
What might this mean for the world?
Most obviously, embrace by the US of a man and a party that have openly repudiated the central norm of liberal democracy would dishearten those who believe in it and encourage despots and their lackeys everywhere. It is hard to exaggerate the effect of such a betrayal by the US.
The mixture of this despair with Trump’s avowedly transactional approach would weaken, if not destroy, the trust on which current US alliances are based. Americans are right to decry the freeriding of most allies. There is no doubt, above all, that Europeans (among which the UK is included) must do more. But the alliance needs a leader. For the foreseeable future, the US has to be that leader. With Russia threatening Europe, and China a peer competitor, alliances are going to be more important than ever — not just for its allies, but for the US, too. Trump neither understands nor cares about this.
Then there are the implications for the world economy. Trump is proposing to introduce a 10 per cent across-the-board tariff on all imports. This would be a contemporary (albeit milder) version of the infamous Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930. It would surely lead to retaliation. It would also do huge damage to the World Trade Organization, by repudiating US commitments to lower tariff barriers over many decades.
As important is likely to be the impact on efforts to tackle climate change. The US itself would presumably reverse many measures in Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. As significant might be a likely US withdrawal from efforts to promote investment in clean energy in emerging and developing countries.
Prospective relations with China must also be in question. Here the changes might not be that dramatic, because hostility to China’s rise is bipartisan. But the opposition to China would be less about ideology under Trump, who cares not a whit about such differences between autocracies and democracies. He rather prefers the former. It would become just a contest over power, with Trump trying to keep the US number one. How differently that would turn out is unclear. Trump might seek to turn Russia against China, as Nixon did China against the Soviet Union. Abandonment of Ukraine might be his bait.
A second Trump presidency might not ruin the US forever. But both it and the rest of the world would lose their innocence. We would have to adapt to the reality that the US had re-elected a man who had openly tried to subvert its democracy. It is possible that the indictments against Trump will save the day. But that fragile hope highlights today’s threat to democracy.
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