Why President Trump Will Likely Be Reelected, And What It Means For Global Security
Donald Trump’s presidency has been so widely derided in the national media that a casual observer might easily conclude his prospects for reelection are dim. However, that is not what the odds makers are saying. They give Trump a solid edge over any Democratic candidate in 2020.
The odds makers are right. Trump will probably be reelected if he chooses to run. What follows is an explanation of why the odds favor Trump, and what eight years of his leadership would mean for global security. Let’s start with the factors favoring a second term.
First of all, candidates who get elected to the presidency once tend to get reelected if they run. Only two chief executives seeking reelection over the last 50 years—Carter and Bush 41—failed in their bid for a second term. Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush 43 and Obama all won reelection, even though at least two of them were highly controversial. In fact, the most controversial presidents tend to roll up the biggest reelection victories.
Second, Trump has presided over the strongest economy in living memory. Unemployment is at record lows, inflation is nearly non-existent, and new jobs are being created at a startling pace. Anyone who studies presidential politics knows that strong economies are the most important factor driving support for the incumbent. While growth may moderate between now and election day, few economists expect a recession anytime soon.
Third, the nation is at peace. Trump has avoided involvement in new overseas adventures, and is pressing to scale back what is left of the operations he inherited from his predecessor. Critics complain he is too eager to get out of places like Afghanistan and Syria, however the record shows that voters have little patience for foreign military intervention. Unpopular wars are the one issue that can eclipse a good economy in the minds of voters, but at the moment Trump seems to be delivering both peace and prosperity.
Fourth, Democrats are busy reminding voters in the middle of the political spectrum why they voted for Trump in 2016. Ever since the Democrats drifted away from their blue-collar base in the 1970s, winning the party’s presidential nomination has required appeals to the Left. While many voters may resent the rich and want more government benefits, those sentiments become muted when the economy is strong. Having given more voters a stake in the economic status quo, Trump can count on an electoral backlash against controversial measures advocated by Democratic presidential candidates in the primaries.
Fifth, polls showing weak approval of the president’s performance have lulled Democrats into thinking his defeat is nearly inevitable in 2020. But Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were both unpopular during their first terms, and then went on to score landslide victories against opponents who made the incumbent look good. Surveys indicating that a majority of voters aren’t inclined to vote for Trump again are misleading, because we don’t know who his Democratic rival will be in 2020. That will be a decisive factor drawing voters to the polls—as often as not because they are so eager to cast their ballots against a contender they detest.
Sixth, people have gotten used to Trump. He doesn’t seem as outrageous as he once did. His critics will fret that this amounts to “normalizing deviance,” but what it really shows is that two years in the nation’s top job have taken the edge off of Trump’s confrontational personality. He no longer sounds like the strident outsider he was on inauguration day. As people become more accustomed to his style and he learns better how to modulate it, the appeal of voting for an alternative will tend to recede.
I could go on. Trump is a masterful speaker when he campaigns, he has delivered on many of his promises to key constituencies, etc. The point is that, Robert Mueller and Kamala Harris notwithstanding, President Trump is probably going to be reelected. So what does that mean for global security?
It’s hard to answer that question precisely without knowing which party will control Congress or what our various overseas partners and adversaries might do in the future. However, there is one critical consequence for global security that you can take to the bank if he wins reelection. The world order that America fashioned in the years after World War Two—the 40 years now known as the Cold War—will be finally and definitively done for.
That global order was grounded in three fundamental precepts: support for democratic principles, collective security against Russian aggression, and liberalization of international trade. Now every one of those precepts is at risk due to President Trump’s nationalistic, transactional approach to his job. In Trump’s view, many of the ties that America has to other nations are left over from another time, and have become a pretext for draining the nation’s treasury. He wants to stop subsidizing the security of nations that are not paying their fair share, and focus more on looking out for America’s economy the same way every other nation does.
This is not the crazy idea that many of his critics allege. The United States began the new millennium generating nearly a third of global GDP, and a decade later that share had fallen to less than a quarter. The biggest cause of the decline was China’s relentless mercantilism after joining the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the failure of successive U.S. administrations to insist Beijing live up to its commitments. Similarly, the U.S. spends 4% of its GDP on defense in part because Germany—the linchpin of NATO—spends only 1%.
The most persistent thrust in President Trump’s policymaking during his two years in office is that Washington is done dealing with overseas partners who don’t contribute to the security and prosperity of America. The president’s efforts to change the disastrous global status quo he believes he inherited have had wrenching effects, but he deeply believes in what he is doing, so he will keep doing it.
What that means is that at the end of eight years, the framework of institutions we have come to associate with the postwar world order will have withered. NATO will be increasingly fragile because most of its members won’t begin to match the commitment of military resources Trump is demanding. The free trade regime fashioned under the WTO will have given way to managed trade that better supports U.S. economic aspirations. And having a democratic government will no longer be the price of admission to close relations with Washington. Donald Trump is a change agent in ways that even many of his supporters don’t fully grasp, and a second term would bring his most cherished goals close to fruition.