US 2020

19.01.20 Publication:

Every year can be said to be important in the United States of America, for what happens in
the world’s most powerful country affects us all. But this coming year looks even more
important than most. For what is at issue in the November presidential and congressional
elections is not just the future of the world’s oldest and most influential democracy but also
the future of the strongest and most durable alliance system seen in modern times.

The year has already begun in a truly dramatic way. To the reported surprise of the
Pentagon, President Donald Trump ordered the killing of a senior military official of another
sovereign state, Qasem Soleimani of Iran. And barely two weeks later, the speaker of the
House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, sent articles of impeachment of President Trump to
the Senate, which then commenced a formal trial of the man often referred to as the
world’s most powerful leader.

So even before wondering about how the election might go in nine months’ time, we
must contemplate both the potential for war between the USA and Iran and for the removal
from office of President Trump. Neither looks likely, but the fact that both are even
conceivable must come as a shock.

Or do they? One thing that seems to happen when a politician acts, talks and tweets
in the way that Trump does is that the public and even the media become numbed,
anaesthetised against shock. What used to be considered abnormal has become normal.
Since nothing he has said or done has yet caused catastrophe, it becomes reasonable to
assume that it never will.

This may indeed prove to be correct. The story of Trump may turn out, to quote
William Shakespeare from his play ‘Macbeth’, to be “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and
fury, signifying nothing”. However one constant reality about Trump should prevent us from
yet jumping to that Shakespearean conclusion. It is that the only thing about democracy
that he seems to respect and take seriously is the winning of elections.

Trump does not respect the rule of law nor the role of the judiciary nor certainly the
role of the media. What he does believe in is his own legitimacy as an election winner. So if
he wins re-election in November, against the current odds, then he will consider himself not
just vindicated but supremely legitimate, more legitimate than any other branch of

Depending on whether his Republican Party retains control of the Senate, a re-
elected President Trump might well consider himself able to act without any real legal or
political constraints. Despite his age, he might even attempt to push through a
constitutional amendment to permit himself to run for a third term, which looks a far-
fetched possibility except for the fact that Trump considers himself able and entitled to
break all rules.

Will he win re-election? Based on his current approval ratings, which are low by
historical standards for a first-term president, especially at a time when economic growth
has been strong and living standards rising, the favourites to win the White House in

November ought to be the Democrats. But this will depend on two main factors: the
impeachment trial and the race for the Democratic nomination.

President Trump and his Republican supporters in the Senate want to keep the trial
short, knowing that at present the Republicans have a clear majority in favour of acquittal,
and to use it to portray Trump as a victim. The danger for Trump and the Republicans,
however, is that new information might emerge during or surrounding the trial about the
president’s conduct that could incriminate him and turn public opinion against him. Much
depends on whether his former National Security Adviser, John Bolton, ends up testifying or
making a public statement, since his evidence could be damaging for Trump.

There is a danger for the Democrats too. This is that fresh information could emerge
that is damaging for their front-runner, former Vice-President Joe Biden, about the activities
of his son Hunter Biden in Ukraine. It will be hard for the Democratic Party’s candidates to
maintain a focus on their primary elections and to stop the impeachment trial dominating
the political narrative.

The most likely scenario in the Democratic primary race is that the winner will be
someone who is relatively moderate and has a broad appeal. That is why Joe Biden is the
front-runner and also why the youngest and least experienced candidate, Pete Buttigieg, is
in with a chance. In past primary contests, that is what has happened. Yet it remains
possible that thanks to the parallel shock-potential of the impeachment trial that a more
radical candidate might prevail, such as Elizabeth Warren or even Bernie Sanders.

It is also dramatic, even exciting. But it also matters hugely for two reasons. The first
is that for all its undoubted flaws, American democracy remains a beacon for the rest of the
world thanks to the freedoms it is associated with and thanks especially to the checks and
balances inherent in the US Constitution. So the fate of US democracy is more consequential
than, for example, the fate of British democracy or Japanese democracy.

The second reason is the state of the security and diplomatic alliances that have
bound America and Europe, America and Japan, and America and South Korea together
since 1945. Of those, the US-Japan alliance has taken fewer blows under Trump, but his
disregard for allies and often open hostility means that nothing can any longer be depended
upon. On the surface, the arguments between the US and China look more important. But
what if a re-elected Trump were simply to do a deal with China and then start confronting
Europe and Japan over trade and technology instead?

Anything, unfortunately, is now possible. 2020 will determine whether or not it is

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