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Despite facing a growing number of charges, Donald Trump continues to rise in the 2024 presidential election polls. His most likely opponent, current President Joe Biden, is raising fears of a worst-case scenario due to his deteriorating health and old age, despite his solid economic record. A French political analyst weighs in from abroad, and from experience....
PARIS — It was February 2009 — almost 15 years ago. Barack Obama had just been inaugurated. I was teaching at Harvard University. In the main square of the campus, it was deeply disturbing to witness middle-class men and women panhandling for change, despite the bitter cold. They had lost their jobs, and many had lost their homes. The deep contrast between Obama’s exceptional speeches on the radio and the reality on the street was troubling to say the least.
The 2007-2008 financial crisis had come and gone. The U.S. government was devoting all of its resources to safeguarding the financial system. Unlike in France during the COVID-19 pandemic, where the state ensured the essentials for French citizens “no matter the cost,” Americans were largely left to fend for themselves.
As a result, Americans suffered greatly and were overwhelmed by an immense sense of injustice. This populist anger would culminate seven years later in the surprise election of Donald Trump over the more experienced and politically established Hillary Clinton.
As America continues its “democratic recession,” I am reminded of Harvard in 2009. Modern American populism, at least in part, stems from this unhinged period of financial capitalism. Perhaps even more so than the collapse of the Twin Towers in 2001, the figurative collapse of the Lehman Brothers tower in 2008 caused the enormous political, cultural and social crisis America faces today.
The turning point of 2007-2008
Of course, the roots of American populism are much older and deeper. But to understand the modern era where reality is relative, rumor becomes fact and misinformation is the norm, we must not lose sight of the paradigm shift that was the Wall Street crash of 2007-2008.
In little more than a year, Americans will return to the polls to choose their president for the next four years. The more “difficulties” Trump runs into with the law, the more his support grows, as well as their rejection—if not hatred—of America’s elites, experts and perceived ruling class. Donald Trump’s personality is the epitome of the American anti-hero, a sympathetic villain portrayed in popular TV shows such as the “Sopranos'' and “House of Cards.” It is in fact true, that in terms of a nasty, vulgar and aggressive populist leader, Trump is unmatched.
While polling data is quite meaningless more than a year out from an election, it can display important trends, which show a neck-and-neck race between the two most plausible candidates, Trump and his successor, President Joe Biden. This election is special in that it is poised to take place largely in courts, instead of traditional campaign rallies and debates.
A presidential campaign in the courtroom
Both campaigns are looking to fundraise and rally support off of their opponent’s legal troubles. Trump faces many lawsuits himself, while Biden faces them through his son Hunter, which his campaign fears may foster doubt among independent voters.
Trump’s personality will become less important than Biden’s as the election approaches. Americans, faced with Trump’s populist tsunami, may view Biden’s reasonable and rational approach as too fragile. During a recent trip to Asia, during a press conference in Hanoi, the American president appeared disoriented at one moment. He then proceeded, unprompted, to claim out of context, “I’m going to bed,” in front of the international press.
Images such as these continue to be spread by conservative and Trump-aligned networks throughout the United States, threatening to weaken the president, who will be 86 by the end of a hypothetical second term.
While we would like to comfort ourselves that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s attempt to impeach Biden in the Republican-held House of Representatives will backfire due to exhaustion, nothing can be certain in today’s hyper-polarized America.
September 25, 2023, Washington, USA: United States President Joe Biden during a meeting on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
A huge step backwards
We must understand the gravity of the situation. Trump’s reelection plays directly into Putin’s hand, and is a stronger weapon for the Russian government than even its enormous nuclear arsenal. We can count on Russian misinformation agencies to assist Trump in his victory over Biden, as the benefits would be considerable — undoubtedly on the battlefield in Ukraine, but not exclusively.
It is safe to assume Trump’s second term would be more radical than the first.
Trump has consistently claimed that he would “end the war immediately,” implying that he would end American aid to Ukraine and force President Zelensky to negotiate an unfavorable peace settlement. Putin’s invasion has arguably backfired, breathing new life into NATO and the transatlantic partnership between the United States and Europe. Trump’s election would be a considerable step backwards in this regard.
A plausible scenario
In the worldwide ideological battle, Trump’s reelection would provide fuel for authoritarian regimes around the world. “How dare you lecture us on morality and democratic ideals? Let’s be serious.” The blow would be all the greater given that it is safe to assume Trump’s second term would be more radical than the first.
He would know no limits, and see himself as a transformative president like Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt. But he would lead America in a more conservative direction, both economically and socially —not to mention his inward-looking nationalism.
This doomsday scenario is not inevitable, but is becoming more plausible. Could there be among the Democrats an “American Macron,” recalling how France's Emmanuel Macron rebelled against his party in 2017 to save the center-left (and his country) from the right-wing populism of Marine Le Pen? Even if the analogy is a bit of a stretch, the premise remains the same: “We must save democracy.”
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