Donald Trump poses the biggest danger to the world in 2024

What his victory in America’s election would mean
Image: Andrea Ucini
Image: Andrea Ucini

A shadow looms over the world. In this week’s edition we publish The World Ahead 2024, our 38th annual predictive guide to the coming year, and in all that time no single person has ever eclipsed our analysis as much as Donald Trump eclipses 2024. That a Trump victory next November is a coin-toss probability is beginning to sink in.

Mr Trump dominates the Republican primary. Several polls have him ahead of President Joe Biden in swing states. In one, for the New York Times, 59% of voters trusted him on the economy, compared with just 37% for Mr Biden. In the primaries, at least, civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions have only strengthened Mr Trump. For decades Democrats have relied on support among black and Hispanic voters, but a meaningful number are abandoning the party. In the next 12 months a stumble by either candidate could determine the race—and thus upend the world.

This is a perilous moment for a man like Mr Trump to be back knocking on the door of the Oval Office. Democracy is in trouble at home. Mr Trump’s claim to have won the election in 2020 was more than a lie: it was a cynical bet that he could manipulate and intimidate his compatriots, and it has worked. America also faces growing hostility abroad, challenged by Russia in Ukraine, by Iran and its allied militias in the Middle East and by China across the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea. Those three countries loosely co-ordinate their efforts and share a vision of a new international order in which might is right and autocrats are secure.

Because maga Republicans have been planning his second term for months, Trump 2 would be more organised than Trump 1. True believers would occupy the most important positions. Mr Trump would be unbound in his pursuit of retribution, economic protectionism and theatrically extravagant deals. No wonder the prospect of a second Trump term fills the world’s parliaments and boardrooms with despair. But despair is not a plan. It is past time to impose order on anxiety.

The greatest threat Mr Trump poses is to his own country. Having won back power because of his election-denial in 2020, he would surely be affirmed in his gut feeling that only losers allow themselves to be bound by the norms, customs and self-sacrifice that make a nation. In pursuing his enemies, Mr Trump will wage war on any institution that stands in his way, including the courts and the Department of Justice.

Yet a Trump victory next year would also have a profound effect abroad. China and its friends would rejoice over the evidence that American democracy is dysfunctional. If Mr Trump trampled due process and civil rights in the United States, his diplomats could not proclaim them abroad. The global south would be confirmed in its suspicion that American appeals to do what is right are really just an exercise in hypocrisy. America would become just another big power.

Mr Trump’s protectionist instincts would be unbound, too. In his first term the economy thrived despite his China tariffs. His plans for a second term would be more damaging. He and his lieutenants are contemplating a universal 10% levy on imports, more than three times the level today. Even if the Senate reins him in, protectionism justified by an expansive view of national security would increase prices for Americans. Mr Trump also fired up the economy in his first term by cutting taxes and handing out covid-19 payments. This time, America is running budget deficits on a scale only seen in war and the cost of servicing debts is higher. Tax cuts would feed inflation, not growth.

Abroad, Mr Trump’s first term was better than expected. His administration provided weapons to Ukraine, pursued a peace deal between Israel, the uae and Bahrain, and scared European countries into raising their defence spending. America’s policy towards China became more hawkish. If you squint, another transactional presidency could bring some benefits. Mr Trump’s indifference to human rights might make the Saudi government more biddable once the Gaza war is over, and strengthen relations with Narendra Modi’s government in India.

But a second term would be different, because the world has changed. There is nothing wrong in countries being transactional: they are bound to put their own interests first. However, Mr Trump’s lust for a deal and his sense of America’s interests are unconstrained by reality and unanchored by values.

Mr Trump judges that for America to spend blood and treasure in Europe is a bad deal. He has therefore threatened to end the Ukraine war in a day and to wreck nato, perhaps by reneging on America’s commitment to treat an attack on one country as an attack on all. In the Middle East Mr Trump is likely to back Israel without reserve, however much that stirs up conflict in the region. In Asia he may be open to doing a deal with China’s president, Xi Jinping, to abandon Taiwan because he cannot see why America would go to war with a nuclear-armed superpower to benefit a tiny island.

But knowing that America would abandon Europe, Mr Putin would have an incentive to fight on in Ukraine and to pick off former Soviet countries such as Moldova or the Baltic states. Without American pressure, Israel is unlikely to generate an internal consensus for peace talks with the Palestinians. Calculating that Mr Trump does not stand by his allies, Japan and South Korea could acquire nuclear weapons. By asserting that America has no global responsibility to help deal with climate change, Mr Trump would crush efforts to slow it. And he is surrounded by China hawks who believe confrontation is the only way to preserve American dominance. Caught between a dealmaking president and his warmongering officials, China could easily miscalculate over Taiwan, with catastrophic consequences.

The election that matters

A second Trump term would be a watershed in a way the first was not. Victory would confirm his most destructive instincts about power. His plans would encounter less resistance. And because America will have voted him in while knowing the worst, its moral authority would decline. The election will be decided by tens of thousands of voters in just a handful of states. In 2024 the fate of the world will depend on their ballots. ■

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Stay on top of American politics with Checks and Balance, our weekly subscriber-only newsletter, which examines the state of American democracy and the issues that matter to voters. You can read other articles about the elections of 2024 and follow along as we track shifts in Joe Biden’s approval rating.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline "Next year’s great danger"

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