“Who is now looking to the US as the exemplar of anything other than what not to do? How many people in Düsseldorf or Dublin are wishing they lived in Detroit or Dallas?” the noted Irish columnist Fintan O’Toole sarcastically pondered in April. “Not many” would be the obvious answer, judging from a recent survey that found America’s reputation has hit a two-decade low in Europe.
Yet for the last five years, Donald Trump has been a godsend for us Europeans; a useful distraction from our own problems.
For some, it was comforting that America had climbed down from its pedestal and sullied itself with the partisanship and viciousness that have long been a feature of European politics.
Others sought to live vicariously through the American people and their social ills, while framing our own through theirs: our demagogues act in “Trumpian” ways; our cultural wars take their cues from America’s. We struggle alongside the American people against intolerance and hatred, but chiefly against their brands of parochialism, not ours.
In another sense, Trump confirmed our existing prejudices: of America’s vanity and vacuousness; its lack of class and culture. By deriding these apparent American temperaments, we could present ourselves as more appealing: the civilized Greece to the brutish Rome, as the old cliché has it.
Better yet, it made us Europeans feel superior about our own problems. “At least our leaders aren’t as bad as Trump,” we could (and often do) say. The unsubtle insinuation often follows: “At least we aren’t as stupid as Americans in voting for someone like Trump.”
American pollsters got it wrong in 2016. The New York Times had Hillary Clinton’s chances of victory at 85%. Betfair said 79%; the statistical maven Nate Silver thought 65%, as historian Niall Ferguson noted this month in an article well worth reading.
But this time around things seem different. Joe Biden is maintaining his lead, and those peccadillos that made Trump popular four years ago now look to be liabilities come November. Silver gives Biden an 80% chance of winning.
The half-life of populism in America, after all, is short. The United States has had its fair share of caudillos. But from William Jennings Bryan to Huey Long, its populists rarely enter office. When they do, they seldom stay for more than one term.
After all, populists do not cling on to power through delivering their promises or competent administration. Instead, they change constitutions, repress opponents and rig elections, as Ferguson also noted.
There are today Cassandra-like warnings that Trump will do just that, although after four years we should have more faith in the US constitution holding up against his strongman tactics.
Trump may claim the election was rigged. But by raising the prospect of him illegally distorting the democratic process, his enemies have made it easier for themselves to offer up a clean slate once he leaves office. Making Trump a demagogue makes the next president a redeemer – and all the problems of the last five years wash away with Trump.
Come late November, then, the overwhelming odds are that Trump will have lost the election. Two months afterward, Biden will likely take his place in the White House, ready to reset the last five years of US policy. Bruised relations with allies will be soothed. Catharsis will rinse over most American communities. Washington will recover.
For us Europeans, however, we will be left more aware than ever of our own problems, no longer able to focus on the distracting bogeyman across the Atlantic to absolve our insecurities.
We will look around and see our own populist demagogues still clinging onto power: Viktor Orban in Hungary; the Kaczynski brothers in Poland. We will notice the far right has secured a worrying grasp over politics over the past five years. The Alternative for Germany became the third-largest party at 2017’s federal election. Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom became the largest opposition party in the Dutch parliament the same year.
Populism and demagoguery will survive in Europe as it fades in the US.
We will also catch a glimpse of our periphery and remember how the continent is fraying at the edges.
Come January, Alexander Lukashenko will likely still be president of Belarus, a death knell for democratic aspirations for those living under the last dictatorship on European soil and preventing a “spring” wave of protests across other less-than-liberal parts of Europe. A major embarrassment for the European Union, as well, as its timid sanctions have done little to force Minsk’s hand.
Southward, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey will remain busy interfering in any civil war it can find, as well as threatening conflict with Greece. Vladimir Putin now has the power to be president for life in Russia. Our continent’s leaders may have finally awoken to the threat that an assertive China poses, but they are still very much sticking to the now-bunk “change through trade” logic.
With Trump isolating America from global affairs, Europeans could present ourselves as alternative honest brokers. But global confidence in the American system will be renewed next year, yet the EU will remain mired by division, duplicity and a lack of foresight into what role Brussels should actually play in world politics.
Wealthy EU states will still be upbraided for not paying enough into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s coffers – even if only via private discussions with US diplomats once again.
And all talk of the EU acting independently of the US State Department’s global objectives (an opportunity opened up by Trump’s divestment from European affairs that was never fully grasped by Paris or Berlin) will be muted when Biden begins to repair the worn trans-Atlantic reliance.
Before Biden likely takes office, Britain may or may not have left its transition period out of the EU without a deal – and Boris Johnson may or may not still be in Downing Street. Whatever the case, London’s reputation across the world will saunter downward as it has done since 2016.
At home, Brexiteers will be aghast (once again) if there’s another delay. Everyone else will be aghast by whatever method is found by December 31. Yet 2016’s couplet of Brexit and Trump will no longer rhyme – one still in the present, the other in the past.
The year 2021 will also be one of deep uncertainty about who leads the region politically. Later in the year, Angela Merkel will be gone and Europe will find a new German chancellor for the first time in 16 years. Who replaces her remains in doubt, as does how a post-Merkel Germany functions within Europe and how the EU functions post-Merkel.
By the end of 2021, France will be consumed by its upcoming presidential election, set for April 2022. Marine Le Pen and her National Rally will most probably be Emmanuel Macron’s main challenger again, yet another occasion for the French to agonize over whether to vote the far-right leader into the Élysée.
On top of that, we’re likely still to be suffocated by the pandemic throughout much of early next year. Economic recovery in 2021 will probably to be slower than the 5.8% growth forecast made by the European Commission in the summer. Another migrant crisis has merely been postponed – and made all the more likely again because of the economic crisis affecting Africa and the Middle East.
Since Trump made it known in late 2015 that he intended to run for the US presidency, Europeans allowed ourselves to be distracted: half-schadenfreude for America’s misfortunate; half-relief that that the US experiences the same political woes as ours, following the heady Obama years.
Come January, we will have to return to staring at our unsolved political messes while America recovers from its own.
David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Times, including the column Free Thoughts. He reports on European political affairs and Europe-Asian relations. Follow him on Twitter @davidhuttjourno