Discover more from twenty4two
Note: Failure of imagination
Trump II will be worse than "worse than you think"
For far too long, no one outside the betting markets seemed to take Donald Trump’s return from the political dead seriously. His 2017-21 presidency was so chaotic, his personality so sociopathic, and the Republican Party’s views on abortion rights so fringe that – for people who should have known better – a Trump restoration was literally unimaginable.
This ostrichism is dangerous enough among those left-wing voters who tell focus groups they won’t turn out for Joe Biden in November 2024. Among European politicians, who are once again mistaking hope for a strategy, it is misrule.
Waiting for Biden’s policy successes to turn into votes is no substitute for preparation. The president’s approval rate – and that of the vice president who would replace him if he were incapacitated at 82-86 – are unshakably low. All evidence to the contrary, polls show that Trump consistently leads Biden on perceived mental capacity, economic competence, and skill in managing international crises. Despite packing the Supreme Court with anti-abortion justices, Orange Man even escapes blame for the Republicans’ rollback of reproductive rights.
This maddening gap between polling and reality has been true for two years but it is only now, with a year to go until election day and after a jolting swing-state poll, that some commentators have woken up to the threat. Trump will win the Republican nomination and, unless death or incarceration makes it impossible, Americans’ powdered-wig-era electoral college system means he could easily be president again. And this second term will be no repeat of the first. In fact, it would not be “even worse than you think”; it would be worse than that. It would end the postwar international order and pose the greatest threat to the US republic in 160 years.
As Charlie Chaplin and at least two of the 20th century’s most notorious dictators showed, cutting a ridiculous figure is no obstacle to winning and abusing power. Trump is as lazy, disorganised and ideologically incontinent as he was when he first ran for office. The difference today is that he has attracted around him a single-minded cadre of national conservatives (“natcons”) with government experience backed up by the implicit threat of violence from his base. These natcons have helped him piggyback his fight for re-election onto the organised far right and its cultural history. It was no coincidence that, in March, Trump chose Waco, Texas, to launch his campaign1. Thirty years earlier, it was here that federal agents – under Democratic orders – raided the well-armed Branch Davidian religious sect. The raid, which led to 86 deaths, is the foundational event for the modern far right.
“For seven years,” Trump told the crowd, “you and I have been taking on the corrupt, rotten, and sinister forces trying to destroy America. They’re not going to do it, but they do get closer and closer with rigged elections. 2024 is the final battle”. This apocalyptic message added to the promise he had made in a speech three weeks earlier: “In 2016, I declared I am your voice. Today, I add: I am your warrior; I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”
Read without context, Trump’s words are threatening enough. But, in his new book Tired of Winning, Jonathan Karl, the chief Washington correspondent for ABC News, reveals the subtext. Days after the speech, Steve Bannon, Trump’s adviser, and former White House strategist, was touting what he called the “Come Retribution” speech. Bannon explained to a puzzled Karl that these were the code words for the Confederate secret service’s plot to punish the authors of the South’s defeat and assassinate Abraham Lincoln. These aren’t just dog whistles to the far right (although they are certainly that). Trump plans nothing but retribution. His bureaucratic enablers care less about Trump’s obsession with launching investigations into the Bidens, and former Trump lackeys who crossed him. For the brains of the Trump outfit, this legal “Terror” will have a wider political benefit. A tsunami of investigations against political enemies and bureaucratic rivals would threaten to bankrupt them and have a chilling effect on anyone inclined to challenge the Trump II White House.
Famously a “f*****g moron” with a microscopic attention span, Trump never felt personally stymied by the federal bureaucracy, but his lieutenants did, and they won’t let it happen again. From top to toe, the administration will be packed with natcon loyalists. In the cabinet and heading the intelligence agencies, rejects from Trump I like Kash Patel, Russ Vought, Stephen Miller, Ric Grenell, and Peter Navarro will be back. Senate confirmation will be no obstacle since Trump intends to appoint acting officials for up to two years only. In his first term, staff resisted the more dangerous orders that came from the Oval Office for fear of legal jeopardy. The credible promise of sweeping pardons will put that right. To clear out the second-rung officials who didn’t already quit on election day, a 2020 executive order is ready to change as many as 50,000 civil servants into at-will employees.
Once again losing the presidency to a minority vote and a skewed electoral college, socially liberal America will not take the age of retribution lying down. As the White House uses federal powers against Democratic states and cities and his supreme court again rules against the post-1960s settlement, expect to hear more talk of a “national divorce” (this time from the left) between the coasts and the “heartland”.
Washington sneezes, the world gets covid
One of the many reasons Trumpism is hard to define is because it has no worldview. Abroad, Trump declares China to be his greatest adversary but can’t quit his man crush on Xi Jinping. “No president has done more for Israel” but no first family has done more for Saudi Arabia. In 2019, the Iran-hating strongman who once promised to kill terrorists’ families called off a retaliatory air strike against Iran for fear of civilian casualties.
Apart from reflex opinions that allies should pay for their protection and any exported dollar is theft, Trump doesn’t care about abroad. Since his enemies are all domestic, foreign affections and hatreds are determined by whether they are his enemies’ enemies or his friends’ friends. His base likes Israel, Russia, Hungary, and Brexiters and hates the rest of Europe, Ukraine, and China. So, so does he. The political lieutenants who would run the second Trump administration are more focused; they favour a revival of America First Committee isolationism and trade protectionism.
Without a shadow of a doubt, a restored Trump would do what he pined to do in his first term and order a US withdrawal from NATO. Whether this is legally possible or not is irrelevant. NATO’s adversaries can be sure that, under Trump, the US would not come to the aid of an alliance member. If it hasn’t already by January 2025, the Russia-Ukraine war will end soon afterwards as US military support dries up. Intriguingly, there are early signs that Trump’s ideological allies are starting to outdo his isolationism and go full AFC. Commentator Tucker Carlson – another 1930s-style figure who Trump has floated as a potential vice president – and Republican candidate Vivek Ramaswamy have gone as far as warning against excessive support for Israel. Wounded by Israeli gratitude to Biden after the 7 October Hamas attack, Trump may prove a willing audience.
European leaders show no sign whatsoever of readiness for what may be coming in 14 months: the cascading security and budgetary consequences of the collapse of NATO and a rapidly thawing relationship between Washington and Moscow, clarification for any aggressor that the US will never respond to the aggression, a 10% across-the-board tariff on goods exported to the US, and a severe destabilisation of American democracy. And never forget, this is Donald Trump. Does anyone think he plans to go quietly in January 2029?