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America and Europe: The challenges beyond Trump

In relation to Donald Trump and American politics, Europe seems to be suffering from first-term deja-vu – thinking that once Washington gets through the next election, and so long as Trump loses, everything will continue as ‘normal’. 

Comforting though that feeling may be in European capitals, it severely underplays the extent to which America’s political landscape has changed with Trump’s presence, and how it could change further under a second Joe Biden administration. A narrow myopic focus on whether Trump wins re-election misses both the challenges that Biden could face in a second term and the significant changes which Trump himself embodies. 

Put simply, Biden, aid to Ukraine, and American foreign and security policy could well return to a situation of legislative sclerosis, regardless of the results in November. 

First, there is little reason to suspect that a defeated Trump will simply retire to Mar-a-Lago, his Florida estate. A second defeat at the hands of Biden will certainly be deleterious for Trump’s ego and reputation amongst his supporters, but it will not necessarily be the end of his political influence or indeed his career; he would still be eligible to run for president in 2028. Much will hinge on the severity of Trump’s loss, such as his influence within the party and how vocal his questioning of the election’s legitimacy is – the greater the defeat, the less likely he will retain the former, and the latter will only have traction with true believers.

It is safe to expect that (short of a catastrophic loss) Trump would retain the support of his most ardent supporters (and those of a populist and isolationist ilk) and is likely to shape the Republican Party’s priorities and policies for the immediate future. Indeed, the Republican Party today is more the party of Trump than the ‘party of ideas’ it once was under former president Ronald Reagan. Evidence of his continued influence was on display during Trump’s meeting at his Mar-a-Lago residence with Mike Johnson, Speaker of the House–the fact that he demurred from commenting on Ukraine likely provided the Speaker with necessary political cover to advance the supplemental budget. 

Trump aside, those populist and isolationist voices, long present in the Republican Party, will also not recede into the background. Trump was merely the latest and loudest populist voice to enter the fray and there are potential successors waiting in the wings to take up the mantle out of either true belief or naked opportunism. 

There is, of course, the distinct possibility that Trump will refuse to accept defeat in November should it come to pass. His belligerence following the outcome of 2020 and that of his supporters could well be repeated in 2024, especially if the margin of defeat is narrow. Indeed, he is already laying the groundwork for claiming that the election was rigged – a strategy which plays well to true-believers, but could jeopardise turnout amongst the rank-and-file voters. (‘Why vote if the outcome is already determined?’, they might question.) 

The troubles of a re-elected Biden will not end on election day. A second Biden administration will likely face a truculent and obstinate Congress, and see his legislative agenda and priorities derailed. It is quite possible the Republicans will secure a majority in the Senate, and possibly retain the House (whilst who controls the House is an open question, it is likely that either party will only have a very slim majority). A divided Congress will make it particularly difficult for the White House to pass any significant legislation, especially if high voter turnout sees MAGA or MAGA-like candidates elected to office. As was seen by the fight over the supplemental, it was only a small number of representatives in the House that prevented legislative action on Ukraine and Israel from advancing for nearly seven months. 

Beyond the Trump-Biden dynamic, the American public is also undergoing an as-of-yet unappreciated realignment of voter attitudes which has yet to fully manifest. After 20 years of the ‘War on Terror’, American voters are increasingly sceptical about engagement with the world, even as they benefit from the bounties of globalisation. There is an increasing disconnect in the minds of American voters between material prosperity and guaranteeing the stability of the international order which enables economic connectivity. 

At the same time, there is a growing fatigue amongst voters of the US’s global engagement – that despite incredible effort, little is being achieved. For example, whilst a majority may still support Ukraine, the lack of a clear path to victory is eroding that commitment. And despite decades of engagement in the Middle East, it remains as unstable as ever. On the left, Democrats are becoming more vocal in opposition of aid to Israel, exposing underappreciated rifts within the party. Washington may be in competition with Beijing, but how effective are politicians and policymakers’ efforts? The lack of demonstrable progress or the communication thereof to an increasingly sceptical public is creating a vicious cycle of doubt and malaise. 

What does this mean for Europe? First, the long-held assumptions about American engagement in the world are no longer guaranteed. While political fights were always present over contentious foreign and security policy issues, there was a generally bipartisan consensus about what America’s role should be in the world, even if only at the most basic level. That is no longer the case. Assumptions that Europe can merely ‘ride it out’ until the next Congressional or presidential elections are faulty, and new intellectual and ideological frames of reference are necessary. 

America’s European allies and partners need to redouble their efforts in engaging Washington, but also beyond the nation’s capital, to communicate to the American people why engagement with the world matters at a material and basic level. It is with some irony that the most notable recent speech on the subject came from Fumio Kishida, Prime Minister of Japan, which received little if any coverage.

Europe also needs to accelerate efforts to develop and retain a measure of independence or ‘strategic autonomy’ when it comes to Ukraine, but also continental security more broadly.  A second Biden term will undoubtedly support Kyiv’s longer-term defence, but the White House’s ability to secure financial support in a charged political environment – as is the case today – is unclear. NATO allies are discussing such a proposal, a €100 billion (£86 billion), five-year fund that would see Brussels taking over some of the coordination functions which Washington currently provides. Unsurprisingly, the Biden administration is rumoured to be opposed to such a fund and the devolution of its authority, but it is a sensible move by NATO to ‘Trump-proof’ aid to Ukraine (even if it is only a repackaging of existing monies). 

Divining America’s electoral outcomes is challenging at the best of times, but the second battle between Biden and Trump is especially difficult to forecast. With so much attention, understandably, on the possibility of a second Trump term coming to pass, comparably little has been given to the day after a Biden re-election and the political realities that he may well face. Prudence demands that such an outcome be considered and for the sake of Ukraine and the Euro-Atlantic, plans made accordingly.

Joshua Huminski is the Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence and Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.

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