The Wider View

Jan 10, 2024

Flirting with Dictatorship

The US presidential election in November will be pivotal for America’s role in the world and the future of US democracy.

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump attends a rally in Reno, Nevada, U.S. December 17, 2023.
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The year 2024 will determine the fate of the West and the rest of the world—including because of elections in the United States. In purely formal terms, this vote is about choosing the US president; de facto, what is at stake is the future of American democracy and America’s role in the world, not least because it seems increasingly possible that the 47th president could be the same as the 45th: Donald J. Trump.

He could be—but in this election, almost everything is unpredictable, and not just because of an ever-darkening global landscape. The Democratic incumbent, President Joe Biden, would be 81 on election day, his Republican challenger Trump 78—a fact that is tactfully described in the US media as “actuarial risk”; in the case of the latter, legal hazard comes into play as well. Biden’s government has objectively achieved a great deal. Nevertheless, a majority of Americans disapproves of his performance in office; even among Democrats, a majority believes he should not run again.

By contrast, neither Trump’s disastrous presidency nor the fact that he has been charged with 91 crimes in four criminal proceedings seems to deter his supporters. He is far ahead of his fellow candidates for the Republican nomination in all polls. To be sure, both Biden and Trump will still have to be formally chosen as nominees at their party conventions in July and August.

Independent candidates such as the populist vaccine skeptic and political clan scion Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (70) or the senator for West Virginia Joe Manchin (77), who also appears to be considering a run, might diminish the electoral chances of both sides. Voter sentiment is highly polarized; issues such as abortion and immigration have enormous mobilizing potential. So, to anyone claiming that the presidential candidates or even the winner of the election are predetermined—I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

What is already clear, however, is that this will be the most momentous US election in many decades, both in constitutional and geostrategic terms. That is because in 2024, the United States will not only be witnessing a face-off of two candidates, parties, political camps, or world views, but also of—in some respects hermetically sealed—perceptions of reality and truth.

Biden’s Blind Spots

President Biden is a staunch supporter of democracy, transatlanticist, and internationalist; he has surrounded himself with a team of experienced top diplomats and officers (Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, CIA chief Bill Burns) who likewise embody this ethos. His administration, nonetheless, took office with a remarkably sober, rationalist, and modern view of America’s role in the world.

Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan recently put it this way in Foreign Affairs: “America’s underlying strengths are formidable … [but] the question now is whether the country can adjust to the main challenge it faces: competition in an age of interdependence.” Specifically, according to Sullivan, this means strengthening the US economy and freeing it from dangerous dependencies; a more measured approach to the use of military force; and a fairer distribution of burdens and responsibilities for transnational tasks with the help of alliances and international institutions.

As Biden’s current term enters its final stretch, his record is truly impressive. His team—around 4,000 political civil servants are recruited by each new administration—skillfully managed the final phase of the pandemic and the resulting economic crisis. It has put a large number of major legislative projects on track, the economy is doing well, and the jobless rate is below 4 percent. In Europe and Asia, alliances have been renewed, expanded, and deepened, particularly with India.

Tight Cooperation with the EU

Above all, the Biden administration has led an unprecedented international support operation (cost to the US so far: $75 billion) for Ukraine against Russia’s full-scale invasion, in tight cooperation with the Europeans; no US government has ever worked so closely with the European Union on sanctions and export controls. And no government in Europe has been so closely embraced by Washington as the one in Berlin. All this was accomplished—especially compared with the previous administration’s chaos and melodrama—with quiet discipline, competence, and loyalty.

Well, most of the time. The abrupt, barely coordinated withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 remains a trauma for NATO; the consequences for the country itself are tragic. The US president’s penchant for sorting a disorderly world into democracies and autocracies had to bow to realities in which Qatar’s role as a mediator in the Middle East was more important than the human rights situation there. The escalating dispute with China was just about contained—for now. The turn away from neoliberalism in economic policy, the new focus on state-subsidized industrial policy, export controls for strategically important technologies: Europe finds much of this acceptable in principle, especially where it is intended to serve climate change mitigation or social peace. The protectionist aspects of this shift, on the other hand, are causing serious headaches for the Europeans.

Yet it is also part of Biden’s balance sheet that US voters do not believe they are better off, despite the fact that wages are rising faster than prices—even for lower income groups. The Republican majority in Congress is currently refusing additional appropriations for Ukraine, whose resistance against the Russian aggressor appears increasingly desperate. Were Russia to prevail, that might also be because of the West’s reluctance—enforced in tandem by Washington and Berlin—to provide allegedly “escalatory” arms deliveries to Kyiv.

In the Middle East, the Biden administration had believed that an imminent normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel would help it contain Iran and push back China’s influence in the region. The horrific Hamas attack on October 7 and Israel’s reaction have put an end to these hopes for the foreseeable future.

Finally, Russia is far from being economically and politically isolated. It continues to profit from sanctions loopholes. The Kremlin’s propagandistic reversal of perpetrator and victim—according to which the invasion of Ukraine was an act of self-defense against the colonialist West—has gained frighteningly broad sympathy in the non-Western world. Russia is receiving drones and missiles from North Korea and Iran, and (at a minimum) robust political support from China.

Strong Nerves Required

And so this remarkably judicious and internationalist administration now faces a global political climate that truly requires nerves of steel. Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, recently described it in a Foreign Affairs essay as follows: “Never before has the United States faced four allied antagonists at the same time—Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran—whose collective nuclear arsenal could within a few years be nearly double the size of its own. Not since the Korean War has the United States had to contend with powerful military rivals in both Europe and Asia. And no one alive can remember a time when an adversary had as much economic, scientific, technological, and military power as China does today.”  

It might be precisely the problem of this hyper-rational team, which has such a precise and nuanced analysis of the dynamics of global strategic linkages and interdependencies, that it has no answers—no feeling, even—for the seemingly archaic aspects of politics. Anger, hatred, enmity: these are its blind spots.

Which brings us to the alternative: the possible return of Donald Trump, whose sulfurous appeal is rooted in the fact that he is the embodiment of un-self-regulated aggression—thus giving others permission to unleash their own impulses without restraint. What orgiastic excesses of violence this can lead to was demonstrated to the entire world when the US Capitol was stormed on January 6, 2021.

While the Democrats have quietly submitted (some quite unhappily) to a second Biden candidacy, six men and one woman were still competing for the Republican nomination in early January. The fact that mega-donor Charles Koch has thrown his billions behind former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley shows that even arch-conservative Republicans are afraid of Trump.

Nikki Haley—unlike her pale, charmless, or absurd rivals—has exuded competence and experience in the debates, while skillfully playing to both the Trumpists and the Never Trumpers at the same time. Trump, meanwhile, has boycotted every debate so far, but his poll ratings are higher than those of all six other candidates combined.

Outline of a Trump Foreign Policy

Assuming Trump prevails again: What would that mean for US foreign policy? There have been various attempts to categorize the different foreign policy schools of thought in the conservative camp during and after his administration; Majda Ruge and Jeremy Shapiro of the European Council on Foreign Relations have divided the three “tribes” of Republicans into restrainers, prioritizers, and primacists.

The first (popular with the base) want to bring US troops home and essentially leave the world to its own devices; the second (an elite minority) want to focus strictly on Asia and China; the third (the conservative Washington establishment) still want to see a US presence and leadership in the world.

These camps still exist, they are just no longer as influential as they used to be. Conservative America is now divided into Never Trumpers and Trumpists from the Make America Great Again (MAGA) faction; those who don't want to declare allegiance to either remain silent. The anti-Trump camp often appears exhausted and defensive (a striking number of House members and senators are not running again)—but the power struggle between the two is by no means over.

In the Senate, the Republicans led by Mitch McConnell (81) are in the minority, but they have worked together with Biden on a bipartisan basis, especially on support for Ukraine. In Congress, after several attempts, the MAGA right managed to install one of their own, Mike Johnson, as the Speaker of the House—with the immediate consequence of a block on new financial aid for Kyiv, which the White House had urgently requested.

The MAGA wing should be taken seriously—because its rise and the shrill, intransigent tone of its leaders are already pushing the boundaries of speech taboos; because it is tangibly putting the US public on edge; and because it seen by right-wing nationalists and authoritarians in Europe and elsewhere as a signal of fraternity and encouragement. Trump himself is fueling this mood with apocalyptic rally appearances and social media posts in which he demonizes his opponents and casts himself as the nation’s sole savior. After he said at an election rally in November that he would “root out the communists, Marxists, fascists, and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country that lie and steal and cheat on elections,” Biden dryly commented that you could hear an “echo of Nazi Germany.” Since then, Trump himself has flirted with the term “dictator” (saying he would only be one “on the first day”).

The MAGA right, meanwhile, has clearly resolved to do everything differently than in 2016, when Trump and his small squad were not even prepared to win an election, much less run the country.

“Team MAGA” Getting Ready

MAGA’s flagship, the Heritage Foundation, has set up a “Project 2025” for the election and published a policy compendium of almost 1,000 pages; various new-right centers and media outlets have sprung up around Heritage as additional amplifiers for the movement. Reports that Heritage is recruiting tens of thousands of compliant loyalists to replace professional civil servants on a large scale have caused a particular stir.

Yet one would seek in vain there for a coherent view of the world or a foreign policy strategy. Exceptions, like the “Dormant NATO” paper by the Center for Renewing America are read all the more attentively (and with groans of dismay in NATO circles). Its author, Sumantra Maitra, describes a supposedly softer version of a US withdrawal from NATO, something we now know Trump was determined to do during his presidency: renouncing enlargement (de facto recognizing a Russian sphere of interest), withdrawing almost all US troops and military staff, and reserving the right to withdraw completely at any time. That, however, would be the end of an alliance that is ultimately based on the belief in an unbreakable American commitment to come to its allies’ defense at any time. By way of precaution, the Senate has passed a bill—introduced by Democratic Senator Tim Kaine and his Republican colleague Marco Rubio—that would require a two-thirds majority in the Senate for the US to withdraw from NATO.

But such speculations only distract from what is truly unprecedented about Trump 2.0. Read arch-conservative thinkers such as Patrick Deneen, Adrian Vermeule, or Yoram Hazony, and it becomes clear that the MAGA camp’s ultimate goal is nothing less than a revision of the liberal-representative US constitutional order. The model is Viktor Orbán’s Hungary: illiberal democracy, the end of political pluralism, the unity of church and state, white ethno-nationalism. Or, as Deneen’s latest book calls it: “regime change.” The Founding Fathers of 1789 would probably have simply spoken of tyranny. (The decades-long march of the ultra-conservatives through school boards and the courts demonstrates how serious, strategic, and methodical they are.)

It is safe to assume that this would have consequences not only for US foreign policy, but also for the balance of power between democracies and autocracies in the world. And these would certainly be more drastic than a mere suspension of US membership in NATO. Yes, Trump sent weapons to Ukraine and more US troops to Europe during his first term in office; he forced the Europeans to increase their defense spending and pursued a normalization of relations between Israel and the Gulf states. But all this was largely due to the fact that he was surrounded by senior officials who again and again managed to contain his anarchic reflexes and admiration for dictators and to channel them into more conventional channels. There would be no such checks and balances in a second Trump term.

Now What?

Again, nothing about this election is predetermined. Not even the candidates. Shocking as the idea is that it might herald the end of American democracy, it is also conceivable that this very prospect could lead to a democratic renaissance, hand in hand with what is clearly an imminent generational change—in much the same way that Trump’s presidency electrified a US civil society that had long seemed almost sedated.

To understand what is at stake on November 5, 2024, for the rest of the world, but above all for Europe, a simple act of imaginative visualization might be helpful: Re-read Robert Gates’ description of the global strategic landscape quoted earlier—but leave the US out of the picture. Europe, over to you.

Constanze Stelzenmüller is the Director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.

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