Americans will go to the polls next November to determine whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump will serve a second term as president. Biden’s approval ratings are at a historical low. A recent New York Times poll shows Biden losing to Trump in five of six key battleground states. Many are now wondering if the unthinkable could come true.
Incredibly, the next US president could once again be the man who admitted sexually assaulting women, openly courts the support of white supremacists, was twice impeached by the US Congress, denies the results of the last election, incited an insurrection at the US Capitol, and currently faces four criminal trials.
A second Trump presidency would be catastrophic for democracy in the US and the world. As bad as his first term in office was, his second term would certainly be worse. Trump did not expect to win in 2016. Having never even held elected office before, he had little idea what he was doing. He and his supporters would come to office in 2025 knowing better what they want to do and how to go about it.
Career civil servants often frustrated Trump’s authoritarian ambitions when he was president. Having learned from this, he will seek the power to fire anyone employed in the executive branch. “The deep state,” Trump recently declared, “must and will be brought to heel”. He plans to particularly target “corrupt bureaucrats who have weaponised our justice system”. His alarming labelling of his political opponents as “vermin” indicates his willingness to use the national security state as an instrument of personal and political vengeance. It calls to mind the McCarthyist period in American history as well as Nixon’s infamous deployment of the federal state against his “enemies’ list”.
Trump and his allies have also laid out an expansive policy platform. It involves a draconian approach to immigration including trying to end birthright citizenship and carrying out mass deportations, including of legal immigrants who express “anti-American views”.
Pandering to right-wing culture warriors, Trump plans a national assault on transgender rights. He supports aggressive law-and-order policies in a backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement. He pledges to round up unhoused people and forcibly place them in tent cities. More bizarrely (and there is always an element of strangeness when it comes to Trump), he says he will invest in flying cars and build utopian “freedom cities” on federal land.
It is terrifying to contemplate Trump in power again. But it is still hyperbolic to declare, as Hillary Clinton has, that he would bring about the “end of our country as we know it”. He would not achieve all his goals, especially if his party did not also control both branches of the legislature. He would be unable to dismiss criminal charges against him for election interference in Georgia as these are being brought in state court. Like his first presidency, his second one would be a rolling constitutional crisis with continuous battles in Congress, the states and the courts.
The Irish far right would certainly take inspiration from another Trump victory. Next November, democracy is again on the ballot again in the US. The results will reverberate across the globe
Trump’s foreign policy is more difficult to predict. We do not know exactly which crises might occur in the next five years. His response to world events is often erratic, as was evident last month when he answered Hamas’s horrific attack on Israel by calling Hizbullah “very smart” and attacking the Israeli defence minister as a “jerk”.
If elected, he promises to settle the war in Ukraine “within 24 hours” though he has not said how and on what terms. One wonders what might have happened in Ukraine had Trump been president when Putin invaded. He has pledged to remove the US from the Paris Climate Accords in what would be a disastrous setback for the world’s efforts to address the urgent climate emergency.
Undoubtedly Trump’s victory would aid the spread of authoritarianism across the globe. He is only one of many world leaders who this century have developed a new right-wing path to state power. Instead of establishing military dictatorships, they have won elections and then proceeded to hollow out democratic institutions. Identifying their nations with a single ethno-racial group, they have attacked minorities and weakened protections on civil liberties.
In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” has been an inspiration to many on the Trumpist right. But Trump also has an affinity with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, leader of the world’s largest democracy. In his first term in office, he held mass rallies with Modi in both India and the US. In a second term, Trump would undoubtedly find another ally in the recently elected Argentinian president Javier Milei whom Trump has lauded as the man who will “make Argentina great again”.
If Trump wins again, it would be an inspiration to right-wing authoritarians everywhere. He would lend concrete support to such regimes. What might have happened in Brazil in 2022 had Trump been president when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva defeated Jair Bolsonaro, dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics”? Biden officials worked behind the scenes to ensure that election results were respected. If Trump had been in office, could Bolsonaro still be in power?
Ireland is a long way from having an authoritarian government, no matter how much Paul Lynch’s Booker-winning novel might seem to foreshadow reality. But as we saw last Thursday the far right has a real presence here. Well-organised racist and xenophobic leaders inflamed the destructive riots in Dublin. The Irish far right would certainly take inspiration from another Trump victory. Next November, democracy is again on the ballot again in the US. The results will reverberate across the globe.
Daniel Geary is Mark Pigott Associate Professor in American History at Trinity College Dublin