What happens if Donald Trump wins?

His voters expect a conservative revolution and hope the U.S. will withdraw into itself. In a new series, the NZZ is examining the potential consequences of a second Trump presidency. This week: What can we learn from Trump’s first term in office?

A majority of Donald Trump's supporters believe that Joe Biden's election victory was rigged.

A majority of Donald Trump’s supporters believe that Joe Biden’s election victory was rigged.

Joe Lamberti / AP

Conservative critics and Democrats alike are warning against a second term in office for Donald Trump. «A Trump dictatorship is increasingly inevitable,» wrote Robert Kagan, one of the best-known neoconservative thinkers, in November in the Washington Post. Meanwhile, Trump’s former defense secretary, Mark Esper, fears a collapse of NATO should the former president return to the White House. Esper also believes that troop withdrawals from South Korea or Japan are possible. This would slowly dissolve the existing world order, he told the television station MSNBC in December.

«If Donald Trump wins»

This article marks the start of the series «If Donald Trump wins.» The series discusses the extent to which a second term in office for Donald Trump could lead to geopolitical and global economic changes – or not.

American voters seem to care little about such warnings. As controversial as Trump’s first term in office may have been, people can now compare it to that of Joe Biden: The cost of living under Trump was around 20% lower, the number of illegal immigrants on the southern border with Mexico was a fraction of what it is today, and the U.S. wasn’t involved in any new wars.

It’s about more than good or bad politics

According to polls, the economy and immigration are currently the most important issues for voters. On both issues, they are much more likely to trust Trump to solve the problems than Biden. At the same time, a large majority of Republican voters are downplaying or suppressing the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, which was instigated by Trump. They firmly believe that Biden’s election victory four years ago was rigged and that the criminal proceedings against Trump are now politically motivated. In their eyes, therefore, Biden is the greatest danger to democracy.

This explains why Trump would possibly win the presidential election if it were held today. In six of the seven key swing states in particular – Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and North Carolina – the 77-year-old is leading by up to six percentage points.

But if Trump’s first term doesn’t seem so bad to many Americans in retrospect, why should we worry about a second term? Here’s what Liz Cheney, former Republican Congresswoman and daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, had to say: «I know our country can survive bad policy. But we can’t survive a president who is willing to destroy the Constitution.»

There are many things one could question about Biden’s policies. In many respects, he continued Trump’s protectionist economic and trade policy – especially toward China. His major investment and subsidy programs give preference to companies that produce in the USA. In addition, his federal coronavirus aid package fueled inflation. At the same time, Biden’s promise of a more humane immigration policy on the southern border with Mexico triggered record-high migration numbers.

However, there is no doubt about Biden’s commitment to the fundamental values of democracy and the rule of law in the U.S. It is also obvious how much he cares about NATO, the Western defense alliance, and alliances with other democracies around the world. One can’t be sure of that with Trump. For a second term, this uncertainty will be even greater for three reasons: He has managed to gain nearly complete control over the Republican Party, Trumpism is more organized, and for Trump himself, personal freedom is at stake in the election.

The subjugation of the Republicans

In the spring of 2016 , influential Republican Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted: «If we nominate Trump (as presidential candidate), we will be destroyed … and we will deserve it.» Now he recently said at a joint campaign appearance with Trump: «This is the most qualified man to be president of the United States.»

Like Graham, many former Trump critics in the Republican Party have turned into opportunistic supporters. Those who remained true to themselves have had to sacrifice their political careers. The best-known example of this is Liz Cheney. She voted to impeach Trump in 2021, then took part in the official investigation into the storming of the Capitol. But the congresswoman was considered a traitor in her conservative home state of Wyoming from then on. In the midterm elections in fall 2022, she lost the Republican primary by a wide margin.

In the past, anyone who lost a presidential election in the U.S. usually also lost power in their own party. But Trump’s control over the Republicans grew despite his defeat in 2020. The reason for this is simple: He managed to convince the vast majority of conservatives that he had not lost the election at all. Anyone who doubts this lie has essentially no political future with the Republicans.

Trumpism is more organized

Eight years ago, Trump instigated a conservative revolution. The Republicans were previously the party of free trade and strong supporters of globalization. They saw the U.S. as the leading power in the Western community of values and as a global bulwark of liberal democracy. President George W. Bush still advocated a welcoming culture in immigration policy. And in 2012, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney saw Russia as his country’s greatest enemy. Trump, on the other hand, presented himself as the protector of those hurt by globalization, pursued a protectionist economic policy and questioned the Western defense alliance with NATO.

However, Trump lacked the personnel to implement his policies with the utmost consistency during his first term in office. So he had to rely on proven government officials from the establishment. These so-called «adults in the room» are said to have fought Trump’s most radical ideas and curbed his impulses. In 2018, a senior government official even wrote an anonymous guest commentary in the New York Times entitled «I am part of the resistance within the Trump administration.» Their aim was to thwart parts of the president’s agenda.

In a second term, Trump will be better prepared for such resistance. For one thing, he now knows better who he can rely on in Washington. On the other hand, a whole series of conservative think tanks – led by the Heritage Foundation – are working on a plan to «institutionalize Trumpism .» Many former employees of the first Trump administration are involved in this «Project 2025.» This is not just about an agenda that a Republican president could implement from day one in office. Conservative personnel are also already being recruited to bring the bureaucracy in the capital under their control as part of a major wave of layoffs.

In conflict with the rule of law

In contrast to his first term in office, Donald Trump has now been charged in four criminal proceedings. After the 2020 presidential election, he tried to annul his defeat and prevent a peaceful transition of power. When he left the White House, he took a large number of secret documents with him and hid them. If convicted, Trump could face years in prison. He therefore now also has a private interest in winning the 2024 election so that the proceedings against him can be dropped and he can remain in power for as long as possible.

Since the Watergate scandal under Richard Nixon in the 1970s, the Department of Justice has enjoyed far-reaching independence in investigations. Trump and his allies, however, are thinking out loud about abolishing this separation of powers. In their eyes, the department has been infiltrated by «radical left-wing ideologues» and urgently needs to be cleaned out. Trump himself declared last June that he wanted to appoint a «real special investigator» to investigate the «criminal Biden family» after returning to the White House.

According to the U.S. Constitution’s 22nd Amendment, no one may be elected president more than twice. Nevertheless, the «American Conservative» recently published a commentary advocating for a third term in office for Trump after 2028. The 22nd Amendment is an unnecessary curtailment of democracy, it claims. The author was voicing an opinion that is generally considered questionable and, currently, is not widely shared. Nevertheless, a fundamental question arises: Who will hold Trump accountable if he breaks the law or does something contrary to the constitution during his second term in office? Impeachment is the usual remedy. But even after Trump fomented the storming of the Capitol in 2021, Republicans prevented a conviction in his impeachment trial. Is there still a red line for Trump in their eyes?

Ukraine as a litmus test

However, the good news is that the worst expectations rarely come true, especially with a figure as unpredictable as Trump. America’s institutions will still resist him, even if he has consolidated his power. But the West had better prepare for a worst-case scenario.

The first litmus test for Trump’s second term in office is likely to be his support for Kyiv. The blockade of Ukraine aid in Congress is an example of Trump’s great influence, but possibly also of his flexibility. He has always been skeptical of support for Kyiv and described the war as a matter for the Europeans. In his view, Ukraine should cede part of its territory to Russia to achieve peace. Accordingly, the right wing of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives blocked roughly $60 billion in new aid funds for Kyiv for several months.

Last week, however, Republican Speaker Mike Johnson brought the aid package to a vote after all. And Trump has not categorically spoken out against the billions flowing directly to Kyiv, formally granted as a loan. This suggests that there is hope that Trump will not turn the world order completely upside down if he wins a second term of office.

But there’s still a fair chance that his former defense secretary Esper is correct. Based on his experience with Trump, Esper is convinced that a reelected President Trump would immediately end support for Ukraine. His next step, Esper said in December, would be to withdraw the U.S. from NATO, or at least withdraw troops from NATO countries. «Eventually, that could cause the collapse of the alliance,» he said. «And that’s exactly what [Russian President] Vladimir Putin would love to see, right? Is the collapse of NATO.»

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