Europe should not be betting against Trump

Europe should not be betting against Trump (Handshake between Federica Mogherini and Donald Trump at the EU-US Leader's meeting, 25/5/2017). Photo: Etienne Ansotte – EC Audiovisual Service / ©European Union, 2017. Elcano Blog
Europe should not be betting against Trump (Handshake between Federica Mogherini and Donald Trump at the EU-US Leader's meeting, 25/5/2017). Photo: Etienne Ansotte – EC Audiovisual Service / ©European Union, 2017. Elcano Blog
Europe should not be betting against Trump (Handshake between Federica Mogherini and Donald Trump at the EU-US Leader’s meeting, 25/5/2017). Photo: Etienne Ansotte – EC Audiovisual Service / ©European Union, 2017.

He wants to be re-elected in 2020: Donald Trump explicitly said so, claiming in a recent interview in Britain’s Mail on Sunday that ‘everybody wants’ him to stand. There are many in Europe who believe he will lose control of Congress in the November elections and that two years later he will be defeated, if he is not impeached first. But it is not all cut and dried. And in any event, Trump is going to leave a lasting legacy, because the US has changed (and started to do so with Obama, who presided over withdrawal from the world). Europe, despite the insults meted out to it by Trump, must devise its own strategy come what may.

First, it is essential not to commit the mistake of seeing things in purely political terms. Trump’s popularity is extremely low in the polls: 45% approve of him while 53% disapprove, on average. But among his voters –especially white males– approval is still around 88%. And what matters are his voters, past and potential, especially given that some Trump supporters are former Democrat voters. He is aided by the fact that, whether due to the voter registration system or simple scepticism, 92 million Americans eligible to vote did not do so in the 2016 presidential election. There were just over 230 million citizens eligible to vote, but only 138 million did so. Nor did Trump win the popular vote (Hillary Clinton beat him by a margin of almost 2.9 million votes) but by states and representatives in the electoral college, which ultimately elects the President. Some six million Americans have been denied the right to vote by court proceedings.

No Republican in the 21st century (whether George W. Bush or Trump) has reached the White House by winning the popular vote. This is well understood by the Democrats, who are mobilising to increase the turnout, especially among the black and Hispanic minorities. But it is an uphill task. The (Democrat) Center for America Progress is calling for automatic registration on the electoral roll, the possibility of registering on the same day as the vote or online, pre-registration (as in Florida, where it succeeded in increasing the youth vote by 4.7%), early voting, and the restoration of voting rights to former convicts, among other measures. If they succeed in increasing turnout significantly, and they are exploiting new and old political techniques to the utmost, they will have a considerable chance of winning.

If this were to happen they would of course need not only a broader electorate but also a good platform and a good candidate in the run-up to November and 2020. In the interview mentioned above, Trump said he could not see any Democrat beating him: ‘I know them all and I don’t see anybody’. It is true that there is currently a shortage of heavyweight Democrat candidates, to the extent that the most touted name is that of the 75-year-old Joe Biden, who was Obama’s Vice-President. A brilliant orator, he is not however Obama, the most popular President the US has had in recent times. Michelle Obama’s name is starting to be mentioned, but she does not seem to be a suitable option either.

As far as the platform is concerned, the term ‘socialism’ is once again being bandied around in Democrat ranks. But they lack ideas. The economy is doing well (although the absolute, as opposed to the relative, level of employment has not yet reverted to the level prior to the 2008 crisis) but inequality has risen. In terms of the trade war with China and Europe, in two years it may have rebounded against US companies and against Trump. But protectionism is still popular and began before Trump. Hillary Clinton, for instance, inveighed against the TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

If Trump loses the Republican majority in Congress in November, he will be hampered but will still have plenty of elbow room. Even with a Congress dominated by the Democrats, the possibility of an impeachment, and Trump’s removal from office, could come back to bite the Democrats if they try to instigate a process that proves unpopular.

In the face of such a situation Europe needs to devise its own strategy because, as noted, the US has changed, although not necessarily in opposition to the notion of the West that Trump seems to loathe. But even if the Democrats win, some changes will have taken root.

First, the EU needs to accelerate its integration in a range of fields, from defence and the strategic autonomy it heralds, to the realm of new technologies and the regulation of platforms with a global impact, as exemplified by the €4.3 billion fine the European Commission has levied on Google, against which Trump has vowed to react. Defending multilateralism and opening up economically must be part of the European plan. The EU-Japan deal is a good example, and China has welcomed it. Japan has resuscitated the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, now minus the US after Trump pulled out. Europe can also fill the vacuum with China that has been left by the trade war with the US. The French Council of Economic Analysis, which is close to the government, has floated a global trade strategy, minus the US, to bypass the US in the World Trade Organisation and to deepen trade liberalisation between countries that are willing. It also proposes ‘proportionate’ retaliatory measures against attacks on multilateralism.

This is not what is advised by the economist Dani Rodrik, who urges Europe, rather than responding to the tariffs imposed by Trump –to force trade talks in exchange for defence– with a dose of his own medicine, to preserve trade as far as it can to the benefit of its own companies and citizens, which amounts to little more than turning the other cheek. The writer and activist Timothy Cooper proposes in all seriousness targeted and intelligent measures, such as boycotting the peanut butter imported from the US, since this would harm various states (Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Texas, Alabama and Oklahoma) where Trump won in 2016, and that with Virginia and New Mexico account for 99% of the country’s peanut production.

Trump is an opportunity for Europe, more a vaccine than a virus, as pointed out in this blog on other occasions. What is less clear is whether Europe, the EU, is in any sort of position to take advantage of it.