With one bound, US President Donald Trump was free. With the expected display of naked partisanship, Senate Republicans (with the exception of Mitt Romney) abandoned their constitutionally mandated role as judges of his alleged abuse of power. They have deferred the decision to the voters in November’s presidential election. Mr Trump will possess many advantages: passionate supporters; a united party; the electoral college; and a healthy economy. His re-election seems likely.
The most obvious reason why Mr Trump might win again is the economy. Even by his standards, last week’s State of the Union address was a case of exaggeration piled on hyperbole. As Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate economist, has pointed out, US performance remains poor by the standards of its peers in salient respects, notably life expectancy, employment ratios and inequality. Moreover, output, employment, unemployment and real wages are largely continuing post-crisis trends. Given the scale of the fiscal stimulus, which has delivered huge and enduring structural fiscal deficits, this is no great achievement. Nevertheless, many Americans will feel that the economy is improving. This will surely play a big part in the coming election.
If Mr Trump wins, this victory could well be even more significant than his first. For the American people to choose a classic demagogue twice could not be dismissed as an accident. It would be a decisive moment.
The most obvious implication of Mr Trump’s victory would be for liberal democracy in the US. The president believes he is above accountability to the law or to Congress for what he does in office. He holds himself accountable only to the electorate (or, rather, to his electorate). He believes, too, that appointed members of his administration, public servants and the elected officials of his party all owe their loyalty to himself, not to any higher cause.
The founding fathers feared just such a man. In the first of the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton wrote that, “Of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their careers by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.” In this, he was following Plato, who wrote how a man who gained power as the people’s protector might become “a wolf — that is a tyrant”. In his Farewell Address of 1796, George Washington argued that the “disorders and miseries which result [from factionalism] gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual”. Factionalism is certainly rife in today’s America.
We cannot know how far Mr Trump would want to go or how far the institutions of the republic would let him do so. Yet is there anything Mr Trump could do, apart from losing the loyalty of his base, that would persuade Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader, to turn on him? It is not institutions, but the people who serve them, that matter most.
Even if the great republic survived the trial largely unscathed (which is optimistic) the re-election of this man — a demagogue, a nationalist, an incontinent liar and an admirer of tyrants — would have worldwide significance.
Despots view Mr Trump as a kindred spirit. Liberal democrats would feel even more abandoned. The notion of the west as an alliance with some moral foundations would evaporate. It would at best be a bloc of rich countries seeking to hold their global position. As a nationalist, he would continue to dislike and despise the EU, as both an ideal and a wielder of countervailing economic power against the US.
David Helvey, acting US assistant secretary of defence, recently wrote of the hostility of China and Russia to the “rules-based order”. This ideal does indeed matter. Unfortunately, its most powerful enemy is now his own country, because it has always relied on American vision and energy. With his mercantilism and bilateralism, Mr Trump has aimed an intellectual and moral missile at the global trading system. He even sees his own country as the greatest victim of its own order. The problem, then, is not that Mr Trump believes in nothing, but rather that what he believes is often so wrong.
More broadly, his short-term transactionalism and willingness to use all available instruments of US power creates an unstable and unpredictable world not just for governments, but also for businesses. This uncertainty, too, might get worse in a second term. It is an open question whether any sort of international rule of law would survive.
There are huge practical challenges that need to be managed. One is the US’s complex and fraught relationship with China. Yet, on this, Mr Trump is far from the most hawkish of Americans. He has a streak of pragmatism. He likes to do deals, however half-baked they may be.
Perhaps the most important issue (if one leaves aside avoiding nuclear war) is management of the global commons — above all, the atmosphere and oceans. Crucial concerns are climate and biodiversity. Little time is left to act against threats to both. A renewed Trump administration, hostile to these causes and the very concept of global co-operation, would make needed action impossible. Often, this administration does not seem even to recognise public goods as a category of challenges worthy of concern.
We are living through a hinge moment in history. The world needs exceptionally wise and co-operative global leadership. We are not getting it. It may be folly to expect it. But Mr Trump’s re-election could well mark a decisive failure. Pay attention: the year 2020 matters.