On Tuesday, Americans head back to the ballot box for the first time since handing Donald Trump his astounding victory in 2016. It comes as no surprise that after his tumultuous first two years in office, the midterm elections are seen as a referendum on Trump and Trumpism, both at home and abroad.
Europeans on the left and right, apart from right-wing populists, of course, hope that American voters will usher in a change in US politics. Europe is much too weak to counter the raucous policies of this president.
Take Trump’s exit from the Iran nuclear deal. Europe sees the deal as a vital agreement that an entire generation of diplomats toiled to forge. It was by no means perfect, but it was rightly seen as a victory of pragmatism and sensible Realpolitik.
With a swipe of his hand, Trump destroyed its basis, flouting international law by threatening to impose sanctions on foreign firms doing business with Iran. Companies responded by pulling out of Iran because they can’t risk losing the American market. Europe’s attempts to shield firms from US penalties may be justified, but they smack of desperation.
Europe’s fateful hesitation
Then there’s Trump’s aggressive trade policy. As Europe’s searched for a response to America’s reckless and counterproductive protectionism, it vacillated between French demands for retaliation and German attempts at reconciliation. The EU Commission, ostensibly in charge of trade policy, desperately sought to square their positions.
Meanwhile, everyone is rubbing their eyes in astonishment that the aggressive, unpredictable Trump may achieve what Europe has carefully, unsuccessfully attempted for decades. He may get Beijing to abandon its mercantilist business model that chronically discriminates against foreign investors.
Trump can also point to a strong economy. While Europe is alarmed at the prospect of a eurosceptic, fiscally irresponsible Italian government reigniting the euro crisis, the US economy is bursting with confidence. Trump can argue that his economic policy is working and will shrug off European calls for him to change course.
Given this state of affairs, it’s understandable that the Europeans are rooting for moderate and liberal American voters to deal the increasingly Trumpist Republicans a stinging blow.
Let’s be realistic
It is far from certain whether Democrats will overturn the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. And it’s typical, European wishful thinking that a divided Congress — in which the Republicans are highly likely to keep their Senate majority — would lead to more palatable US policies.
In the pre-Trump era, Republicans were traditionally the free trade party while the Democrats tended towards protectionism, albeit in a moderate form. And even a Democrat-led House is unlikely to lead to the US lifting its Iran sanctions. The main impacts will be domestic, on tax and migration policy. The biggest effect of a Democrat-led House may be using the ongoing investigation into allegations that Trump colluded with Russia in the 2016 campaign against the President.
From a European point of view, the fact that Trump makes a mockery of fundamental American principles is bad enough. But what is truly disastrous is that Trump’s behavior hasn’t triggered outcry among his party colleagues. Instead, they helped polarize the nation. To be sure, there’s nothing new about America’s divided, poisonous political atmosphere. What’s new is that the President is personally exacerbating the rift and inspiring his party to follow suit. There’s a huge chasm in the moderate and liberal center of American society. And no one — not even the Democrats — is trying to fill it.
The damage is done
Recently, Trump said: “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow.” The problem is that America isn’t shining anymore. The West’s leading power called its own values into question and that’s causing global disorientation — especially in Europe.
Wherever you look, Trump clones are emerging, inspired by the White House strongman — Salvini, Orbán, Kaczynski, Gauland and now Brazil’s Bolsonaro. Wherever you look, people are losing faith in the system that once brought peace and prosperity after World War II.
The dream that Trumpism might vanish along with Trump one day, or that it may lose some of its power in the midterms, is unlikely to come true.
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