Monthly blog series by Hans-Joachim Gießmann, Executive Director at the Berghof Foundation
On 18 June 2019, at a rally in Orlando, Florida, Donald Trump did what his political opponents had feared and his supporters had hoped for: In front of a cheering crowd, he announced his intention to stand for re-election. This was not surprising. The President himself had been announcing ‘great things’ for weeks and had been celebrating the unique successes of his first term in office ahead of time.
Despite the decline in his approval ratings, Trump's chances of being re-elected are not low. On the one hand, Trump is benefiting from the continued overall stability of the economy. On the other hand, he has so far largely succeeded in blaming the failure of his many full-bodied promises on others, primarily traditional media outlets, liberal America and the opposition Democrats.
With their attempts to put the President under permanent pressure - especially on the question of his team's collusion with Moscow - the Democrats have been able to achieve very few notable successes of their own. The high number of candidates for the Democratic primaries (as of 19 June 2019: 24 candidates who fulfilled the criteria) is a sign of the great fragmentation of the main political opposition. They disagree not only on the strategy to prevent Donald Trump from winning a second term in office, but above all on an alternative narrative that would be more convincing than the President's crude nationalist course. His permanent recriminations against everyone who disagrees with him, continue to work, even if they are not supported by the facts.
Donald Trump is a phenomenon to the extent that he is able to use manipulation to his advantage like no other. There has not been a greater outflow of frustrated employees from any US government in the past 70 years. Those who wanted to leave have left; those who had no desire to support the President's erratic policy-making had no choice but to leave. The only constants in the administration are the President, certain members of his family and a few close comrades-in-arms.
Donald Trump has succeeded in doing what even his bitter rivals in the Republican Party are reluctant to admit: He has consolidated his personal power base by smothering coalitions forming against his way of holding office from the outset and making unswerving loyalty the key qualification for appointment to vacant posts. It is astonishing that an ambivalent personality like Donald Trump was able to shake the US democratic system to its foundations and to diminish its prestige in all parts of the world in such a short time, and yet at the same time to be perceived by a broad electorate as the trustee of a ‘great America’.
There are plenty of reasons to view Trump’s first term in office in a critical light. Country and society are deeply and increasingly divided. The nation once shaped by immigrants is experiencing an unprecedented wave of exclusion and xenophobia. Regulations and institutions of global economic, environmental and political cooperation are being deliberately weakened or torpedoed. Attempts to ‘go it alone’ are undermining the trust of partners and allies. The transatlantic alliance is in a deep crisis. A new arms race is taking place, while agreements on global and regional arms control and on curbing the proliferation of weapons are being cancelled or suspended. There is open war on free world trade. A policy of putting America first that does not shy away from blackmail has taken the place of seeking the compromises. The list continues.
What is frightening about this is that while some of these policies can actually bring benefits to the US in the short term, such as recently in the area of trade relations with Mexico, they are driven by unequal power relations and the hope of those affected to outperform others in comparison. It is these short-term successes that the President knows how to use to tie his old and new voters to himself.
At the same time, however, much of what has been achieved in decades of negotiations is being systematically destroyed.
The implications can be clearly illustrated by a single example that is particularly timely given the ongoing G20 summit in Osaka: the Chinese-American trade conflict. The US imposed punitive tariffs on China worth 200 billion US dollars. China, on the other hand, imposed measures on a smaller scale. Even if the trade imbalance puts China in a weaker position, Beijing has an incomparably sharper weapon, the use of which would have serious consequences not only for the US but for world trade as a whole.
Together with Japan, China, as the largest creditor, owns more than one third of all Treasury bonds, the US government securities. In addition, China has the world's largest foreign exchange reserves, amounting to more than one trillion US dollars last year, according to the US Treasury. A mass sale of bonds and foreign exchange would substantially increase the cost of capital for the US. It would not only threaten many companies’ existence, but also raise mortgage rates, affecting hundreds of thousands of homeowners. China's potential revenge could lead to a recession whose effects would be felt not only by the US but on a global scale.
The ‘America First’ campaign with which Donald Trump surprisingly took office will bring no medium-term benefits for the population of the US or for the world. Nevertheless, there is reason to fear that, for the reasons set out above, it could give the President a further term in office.
Without any doubt, the US under Donald Trump has the capability to weaken or even destroy existing agreements, regimes and institutions. A lack of reliable order and rules, especially in a world that faces global challenges from climate change to the prevention of nuclear war, would be a recipe for disaster. Let’s hope that the US will realise the global risks that result from giving up the agreed rules of a common order.