Europe’s 2018 takeaway: Trump is no fluke

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on November 9, 2018.
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FOR Europeans, the inconclusive results of the US midterms election, with Democrats capturing the House and Republicans expanding their majority in the Senate, drive home an uncomfortable truth: President Donald Trump and Trumpism are not going anywhere. That outcome has lasting implications in Europe and beyond.

A common theme of European — and official Russian — analyses of the results is that no one can really claim victory and the US remains a divided country with a loose-cannon president. “America is split in two, and Trump and his policy haven’t wavered,” said Francois Bayrou, a French politician and former cabinet official. “This makes it a very important challenge for Europe.”

Unable to push a legislative agenda at home for the next two years because of a hostile Congress, Trump will pay more attention to foreign policy, where the president has greater power to act alone, as Riccardo Barlaam speculated in the Italian business daily Il Sole 24 Ore. The prospect of two more years of extraterritorial sanctions, tariff threats, demands for higher military spending, insistence that Europeans should buy US hydrocarbons, slights to countries and cities as immigrant-infested hellholes, and the rest of Trump’s repertoire is not as worrying as the clear possibility that he could win a second term in 2020. The midterms provide the first unassailable reason for non-Americans to take this prospect seriously. 

Many Europeans still cannot understand why Americans are voting for Trump in such numbers. In Western Europe, politicians like him do not win majorities; their best chance to govern is in a coalition with more moderate parties. And confidence in Trump is low on this side of the Atlantic. (27% in populist-run Italy, 10% in Germany, 7% in Spain, according to a recent Pew Global survey.) “Forty percent of Americans forgive Trump for behaviour that should be considered unforgivable in any decent world: from the constant, unabashed lying to the inhuman cruelty of some of his decisions,” Moises Naim noted in Spain’s daily newspaper El Pais the day before the midterms.

So it is something of a shock to European US-watchers that the midterms prove that Trump’s victory in 2016 was not a freak accident and that he may have the magic to get a second term. “It’s important for everyone in Germany who holds out hope: Trumpism is not a temporary political ideology or movement,” the prominent German economist Rudi Bachmann tweeted.

Part of Trump’s magic, of course, is his ability to profit from anti-immigrant sentiment. That’s especially relevant to commentators in Germany, where such rhetoric has not been a surefire way to win votes, and where the strongest party, the Christian Democratic Union, is debating whether it should try to take ownership of the immigration issue to sidetrack the populist opposition.

That Trump has been able to play the xenophobia card successfully while avoiding an electoral rout helps centrist politicians in Germany who argue for a shift to the right. If Trump and his movement endure in the US, populist parties in Europe will get American support, becoming even more formidable rivals to traditional conservative forces.

Interestingly, most Trump-supporting European populist leaders, those who congratulated him jubilantly in 2016, refrained from commenting on the midterms, perhaps because of the ambiguity of the results. Not a peep from the Dutch anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders, the French nationalist Marine Le Pen, Austria’s Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, any of the leaders of the Alternative for Germany party, or top-ranking members of the ruling parties of Poland and Hungary. Only Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, whose party is part of the governing coalition in Italy, welcomed Trump’s victories “in crucial states, against everything and everyone: left-wing journalists, actors and singers, film directors and pseudo-intellectuals.”

But then, Salvini is arguably the populist who matters most this year: His party leads Italian polls and is behind attempts to unite right-wing populist forces for the European Parliament elections next year. Salvini’s dreams would come true if those forces do as well as Trump’s Republicans in the midterms.

For most European countries, little will change after the US vote. At best, the new Democratic leadership in the House will propose alternative policies and try to heal rifts some foreign alliances Trump has undermined — but they will essentially only represent themselves. The Democrats’ performance in the midterms does not foretell a landslide, or even a narrow win, in 2020. On this side of the Atlantic, only one country faces somewhat increased risks from the midterms: Russia.

For Russians — not just those in the Kremlin, but also investors and ordinary citizens — a Democratic-controlled Congress means roughly the same as Trump rule means for Iranians: the prospect of ever-tougher sanctions. The House Democrats are certain to pursue their attempts to link Trump to President Vladimir Putin, regardless of the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the apparent lack of meaningful Russian interference in the midterms (beyond some social network trolling). So official Moscow’s reaction, beyond obvious comments in propaganda outlets about how split American society is, has been pointedly muted.

“It’s hardly possible to complicate” US-Russian relations any further, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said. Asked whether the political situation in the US was better or worse after the midterms, he said, “We don’t have the slightest desire to interfere.”

Russian officials have long known that they have to dig in for the long haul when it comes to US hostility. Europeans, too, are getting accustomed to the prospect that Trump’s America is not necessarily just a painful but brief interlude. — Bloomberg