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Overcoming the Trump Obsession

Overcoming the Trump Obsession
 François Godement
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - U.S. and Asia

Europeans, whether openly or discreetly, are currently focused on preparing for the possibility of a second Trump presidency. In a significant election year globally—spanning from India and Taiwan to the United States and the European Union—only authoritarian states appear to avoid this preoccupation. They eagerly monitor for signs of division and weakening democracies. 

There's no denying that a Donald Trump victory is possible. Until now, most Republicans have refrained from denouncing him, given the significant defeat in the 2022 midterm elections for those, such as Liz Cheney, who criticized the former president. National polling averages show that his popularity base has never fallen below a third of the American electorate. Trump is far ahead of other Republicans in these same polls, and is on a par with or slightly ahead of President Biden. The traditional idea that economic conditions determine voters' choices is not working in Joe Biden's favor. For now at least, Biden is not benefiting from the success of his policies in favor of the middle classes, with falling unemployment, rising wages, an unprecedented surge in productivity—and growth outstripping that of ex-dragon China, all this against the backdrop of a high dollar. 

Yet this is not game over. Many analyses seem to confuse the right-wing tilt in American opinion, its impulses on immigration, and the preference for a foreign policy based solely on perceptions of short-term American interests (as opposed to the constructs of liberal internationalism), with an automatic mandate for Trump. And the latter, with a toxic mix of lies, threats and insults, has been staging his own psychological drift since the 2020 defeat by turning it into a weapon of combat on social media and rallies sometimes hallucinating, sometimes as a public entertainer at his opponents' expense. 

A second Trump term would be a challenge to American democracy.

It cannot be repeated often enough: a second Trump term would be a challenge to American democracy, starting with the balance of power, and to the international order—whether liberal or not—created in 1945 and reinforced in 1989. Many Republicans know this well, but choose to stay in denial or remain silent facing an authoritarian vindictiveness that is premonitory of the punishment of "traitors".

They are all too aware that social media, the decline of a common political culture reduced to the flag, and the symmetrical excesses of a generation they perceive as indoctrinated by wokism have led to widespread distrust of elites, whoever they may be. In 1939, filmmaker Frank Capra sent a naive senator to Washington to "drain the swamp". Today, it's a man who sometimes seems psychologically disturbed who takes his cue from populist vindictiveness. The famous "adults in the room" who had shaped a more coherent policy underneath, or despite President Trump, now seem his first targets.

And yet, there are many obstacles ahead.Trump faces four indictments and 91 felony counts. These include criminal charges of falsifying business records, mishandling classified and highly sensitive documents, and conspiracy to overturn Joe Biden’s victory both at the federal level and in the state of Georgia. Maine and Colorado’s supreme courts have also disqualified Trump from appearing on their presidential primary ballots, and his name was among dozens in the recently released Jeffrey Epstein’s papers. Trump is using a media strategy, presenting himself at times as a victim and at times as God himself—and it seems to be working for him. US judicial processes around presidential immunity and disqualification are legally strenuous and complicated, making it hard for the general public to understand. Time is crucial, and the more these legal proceedings drag on, the closer Trump gets to reaching the final challenge.

However, American judicial independence should not be underestimated. Even the Supreme Court, where Trump had a remarkable run of good luck and appointed three justices, has sometimes proved him wrong. This is true for example of less high-profile cases, such as the one involving presidential immunity in 2020. Federal appeals court judges in Washington are skeptical that Trump would enjoy absolute immunity from prosecution for subverting election results. We're not dealing here with societal debates such as integration, diversity or abortion, but with the fundamental balance of power that forms the basis of the US Constitution. Just one of the upcoming decisions, if final, could trip up Trump. 

As for American public opinion, while it may tolerate deceit from politicians and be sensitive to conspiracy theories, it also pays attention to real court decisions and the dangers of chaos. A few years ago, the idea of a civil war seemed like political fiction. Now it is here to stay, stirred up daily by Trump himself, who openly defies justice and talks of "executing" former US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley. 

As for American public opinion, it also pays attention to real court decisions and the dangers of chaos.

The challenge for think tanks openly preparing for his administration (Heritage's 2025 Presidential Transition Project in particular) and recruiting in anticipation of a Trump presidency, is to secure loyalty, outline an agenda, and preemptively manage a president who will not easily conform. With some perverse glee, Paul Krugman aptly described the contradiction: Trump's core constituency knows that only he is authentically populist whereas his rivals are right-wing conservatives, in other words "hypocrites."

Conversely, there is room for common sense rallies to one or another of the more moderate candidates who may emerge. Joe Biden acknowledged that he is the most obvious Democratic nominee, despite his age, with the main goal of opposing Donald Trump in the name of democracy. Can a surprise be ruled out when he names his vice-presidential running mate? Kamala Harris, an asset for the Democratic left-wing vote, will be a burden for the national campaign. Another Californian, Governor Gavin Newsom, would make a far more attractive running mate, considering potential risks to the president's future health. He symbolizes trust in the American economy and centrist politics. On the Republican side, Donald Trump could boost his odds if he choses a Latino running mate. Florida’s Ron De Santis has exhausted himself by following Trump's radicalism without matching his hold on the crowds. Nikki Haley, initially non-existent in terms of domestic policies, is rising in the polls. Conservative and even hawkish on foreign policy, she is also a child of Indian immigrants, which gives her the ability to reassure some minorities. Additionally, being a woman is significant in the national debate, especially since the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion by reversing Roe v. Wade

It is therefore not a given that Europe has to focus on worst-case scenarios.

It is therefore not a given that Europe has to focus on worst-case scenarios. Too many sovereignists, ideological opponents of the United States, or advocates of a European strategic independence—that remains currently an illusion—seem almost to be greeting this situation in order to advance their own views. On the other hand, it is a fact that there is a majority of ideas in the United States to which Democrats themselves must make concessions. 

After all, isn't the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and its green subsidies to re-industrialize the US an amplification of Made in America for public goods, and a step towards the stand-alone claims of the MAGA movement's Great America? The Biden administration is also putting a new accent on the construction of the Mexico border wall. Under Obama, large sections of the wall were built, but without publicity.

Although the Biden administration's China policy makes room for attempts at dialogue with Beijing, it keeps the course taken by the Trump administration. Whatever the case, a verbal European choice of "balance" between China and the United States would put Europe in difficulty on its own regional security issues. And it's not Trump and his evangelical backers who will diminish support for Israel—even if their disregard for human rights in partner countries puts them in a better position to influence Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

As in many European domestic elections, the right-wing trend in American public opinion—accentuated by external shocks and challenges that leave little room for idealism—is a fact. We can aim to restrict it, but it would be foolhardy to counter it head-on, especially when there is a certain symmetry, albeit less threatening, with American-style wokism or the anti-system drift of an equally radical left.

As in many European domestic elections, the right-wing trend in American public opinion is a fact.

We'd have a hard time coexisting with Donald Trump. But Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan or Bush were not liberals. It is in that space between a continuing Biden administration and a tougher conservative agenda that we must look for the thread of tomorrow's European positions.

Image copyright : SPENCER PLATT / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

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