Donald Trump is not guaranteed to win the US presidential election in November 2024, but he has a much better chance than any man facing 91 criminal charges and four trials has a right to expect. The majority of recent opinion polls show him leading Joe Biden, or show the two candidates level. Most European leaders hope that Biden will be re-elected, but as military leaders, politicians and business gurus have said for decades, “Hope is not a strategy”.
In 2016, most Europeans did not take Trump’s prospects of winning seriously enough. In 2024, they have no excuse for repeating their error. To be fair to EU leaders, Trump himself did not expect to win in 2016. It took him time to assemble a team. He did not come into office with a coherent programme, but with a set of instincts.
Over the intervening years, his instincts have if anything become more violent and undemocratic, but this time Europe might not be able to rely on Trump’s chaotic approach to governance, which, in his first term, meant that many policy announcements never led to action. There are now people in influential think-tanks and elsewhere preparing to turn Trump’s ideas into policies, and Trump is unlikely to appoint the kind of independent figures – like Defense Secretary James Mattis or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – that blocked his wilder schemes.
Meanwhile, most of the Congressional Republicans who stood up to Trump in his first term are gone, replaced by more loyal members of the Trump cult.
Europe must be ready for Trump
Biden has been far from perfect, from a European point of view. He has been slower than many would have liked to provide military support for Ukraine. He is no fan of free trade. But in general, Biden represents democracy at home and a belief that America must remain fully engaged in the world, including on issues such as climate change where the US has disproportionate influence on what the rest of the world does.
Trump represents authoritarianism at home, coupled with extreme unilateralism in the conduct of foreign policy. Some of his most vocal supporters in Congress espouse isolationism of a kind that had been marginalised in the US political establishment since the second world war.
For Europeans, there should be at least four areas of particular concern if Trump wins a second term: defence and the future of Nato; transatlantic economic relations; Trump’s approach to the rules-based international order; and US internal strains and their international impact.
In the light of the continuing Russian threat to parts of Europe, this is the most urgent priority. Most European leaders are still not being honest with their populations about the strategic situation in which Europe finds itself, and the need to invest more in defence.
Russia is increasingly putting its economy on a war footing. Though it has suffered enormous casualties in Ukraine, Putin’s appetite for regaining control of parts of the former Russian/Soviet empire does not seem to have been dulled, and opponents of the war have been silenced. Many of the countries most threatened by Russian expansionism, such as the Baltic states, have also transferred much of their military equipment to Ukraine, in the hope that Putin would be stopped there. If he is not, they will be even more exposed, unless their allies reinforce them.
Trump has a long record of hostility to free trade. Although China was his number one target during his first term, he was almost as hostile to the EU. When he imposed tariffs on aluminium and steel imports on the spurious basis that they threatened US national security, the tariffs applied to European as well as Chinese producers.
As things stand, the EU and US have not reached a definitive agreement on removing these tariffs and cancelling the EU’s retaliatory measures, so the default position for the next administration would be the reimposition of tariffs that are currently suspended. But there is a high risk that in a second term Trump would use the ‘national security’ excuse to impose tariffs on more goods, regardless of EU opposition or the risk of World Trade Organization disputes. Europe has few levers: it would suffer more than the US in a trade war.
The rules-based international order
The multilateral system is vital in protecting the interests of smaller countries, including those in Europe. It is already creaking, thanks to Russia’s flagrant violation of the UN Charter in invading Ukraine, and the Israeli government’s rejection of international norms on the treatment of territory and people under occupation (which long predates its refusal to listen to UN calls for restraint in its current attacks on Gaza).
Trump might break it entirely by pulling the US out of more international organisations or depriving them of funds. Europeans need to co-operate more closely with other supporters of multilateralism, like India or Brazil, even if they don’t see eye to eye on everything.
US internal divisions
The biggest threat, and the one that Europeans will struggle to mitigate, is that – with or without a Trump victory – there will be a long-term reshaping of the US domestic polity and its relationship to the world.
In November 2023, the editor-at-large of The Washington Post, Robert Kagan, wrote “A Trump dictatorship is increasingly inevitable. We should stop pretending”. That may be too pessimistic.
Even if Trump loses this time, however, the scale and nature of his electoral support in 2016 and 2020 show that a significant part of American society has turned away from democratic values and international engagement in favour of populism, protectionism and isolationism. This is not the America of the cold war, the leader of the free world. It is more like the America of the 1930s, watching with indifference while the dictators prepared for war in Europe.
Europe should have started hedging against a less friendly America in 2016, as soon as the election results were in. It should not waste any more time. If Trump loses, so much the better. But there will be others like him: Trump is a symptom, not the cause, of what ails America.