As a new round of presidential elections gets under way in the United States, much of the world looks with exasperation at the possibility of yet another major shift in America’s domestic and foreign policy. The mere thought of a Trump comeback in 2024 is nerve-racking for Washington’s allies, considering his vengeful eagerness to (once again) wreak havoc in America’s democracy and its role in the world.
No wonder most states are reluctant to support Washington’s policy towards Russia or China, for fear of another radical change of policy under the next administration as had happened after every administration in the past two or three decades. From the Bush administration’s imperialist and messianic overreach to Obama’s pragmatic realism, to Trump’s America-first nationalism and lastly, Biden’s return to strategic posturing, the dizzying change of doctrines has underlined the unreliability (read shiftiness) in American leadership. The strategic erraticism constitutes a major departure from America’s steadiness during the Cold War. It also contrasts sharply with the autocratic but stable regimes in Russia and China, which have been largely predictable since their resurgence at the turn of the 21st century. World leaders need not wonder who will be in charge in Moscow or Beijing come next year, but wish they knew who will win next year’s American elections.
I thought about this during a recent trip to the United States that took me to Florida, the home of the two leading Republican frontrunners: Donald Trump who announced his candidacy late last year, and Ron DeSantis, Sunshine State governor and rising star of the party, who is yet to announce his bid, but is widely expected to do so in the coming weeks or months. The octogenarian President Joe Biden is also expected to run, even though many worry about his capacity to lead through the age of 86, when his prospective second term ends. If he decides to call it a day, there is no telling how many Democrats will throw their hats in the ring, but if he marches on, no Democrat is expected to take the plunge.
So, as things stand today, a likely scenario is the 2024 presidential face-off becoming a repeat of the 2020 showdown, but the final result will depend on a number of variables – economic, political and personal. Biden has so far fared well in terms of his command of the presidency and the economy, but high inflation and potential recession could weaken his chances. Likewise, he has succeeded in reinvigorating NATO following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but a costly protracted proxy war will not bode well for him or America. Biden’s economic and national security scorecards will matter little if he starts showing pronounced signs of ageing that undermine the public’s confidence in his ability to lead four more years.
For his part, Trump is betting on his tight hold on the party’s machine and base to win the Republican nomination, notably against his former cabinet members cum presidential candidates like Nikki Haley, Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo. But that may be the easy part. Trump lost the 2020 elections because he lost the confidence of the majority of American voters, including the independent voters, who deemed him unfit for a second term. They became even more certain of their verdict after Trump tried to undermine the democratic process by fraud and even by force on January 6, 2021. Since then, Trump has faced multiple lawsuits, some of which could place his candidacy in jeopardy.
Enter DeSantis. The Republican who, many believe, can defeat Trump and bring down Biden. But he remains an enigma for much of the world. The ambitious two-term governor is a younger and more competent version of the populist former president. And unlike Trump, he is not riddled with sexual, financial and political scandals. He is a straight talker not a compulsive liar; a true believer in the hard conservatism he preaches, not a peddler of soundbites like Trump.
DeSantis is expanding his Florida Republican power base nationwide, and in the process expanding the donor base that can finance his prospective presidential campaign when the time is right. He has also written a campaign-styled biography that has come out this week. Such PR books are terrible reads but their political messaging says a lot about their authors. True to form, DeSantis hits all the “right” notes in The Courage to be Free, boasting of his conservative upbringing in a blue-collar Italian American household, his talent in America’s pastime sport, baseball, his scholastic achievements at the nation’s top universities, Yale and Harvard Law, his military service in Iraq, albeit as a prosecutor, his three-term public service in Congress, and his successful governorship. But the populist DeSantis also tries to have it both ways as he caters to the Republican base. He incessantly jeers against the nation’s prestigious universities, the Washington bureaucracy, the hi-tech conglomerates and the “corporate media”, all of which he believes are controlled by a liberal cabal, housed in the Democratic party.
DeSantis is authoritarian, angry and vindictive, with a chip on his shoulder. He is all too ready for a nationwide cultural war in the name of “the people” and against the liberal ruling class, starting with an assault on “corporate wokeness”, like that of Walt Disney, the professional class, the public school system, and the liberal indoctrination of America’s education. Considering the general apathy about foreign policy, the governor says little about the world in his book, aside from condemning the likes of communist Cuba and China, and complimenting colonial Israel, boasting of his early efforts as congressman to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. Interestingly, DeSantis’s courage to be free stops with Trump, who helped him win the first gubernatorial race in 2018. Instead, he lavishes his old guru with praise, skipping over his disastrous performance in the 2020 elections. All of which raises doubt about whether the governor will be going head-to-head against the former president in the Republican primaries.
Will the young DeSantis wait four more years? Wait until the 77-year-old Trump drops out of the campaign for legal or personal reasons? Or, wait only until it becomes obvious that the former president has no clear path back to the White House? Or, behave in a Trumpian fashion; betray his old ally in order to get ahead under the pretext of saving America from another Democratic presidency, or in his words, “making America Florida”! Either way, Trump is showing no signs of backing down and is in fact gearing up for a confrontation with Ron “DeSanctimonious”; a confrontation that promises to be very personal, focusing on age, experience and loyalty, not policy or ideology. Such a confrontation may be beneficial to Biden, as the two bullies bloody each other in a fight for the Republican nomination. A Trump comeback is sure to produce a vengeful reversal of everything Biden – a return to 2020 to Make America Great Again, again. A triumph for DeSantis is also a return to “MAGA” but without the whole drama.
The fact that both are certified populist nationalists and neither is a liberal democrat will have major implications for America and its role as the world’s leading democracy – especially in Europe. Their opposition to liberal interventions and messianic wars will shrink US strategic commitments abroad, including in Ukraine. As for Biden, a victory will ensure a triumphant continuity of his domestic social democratic agenda and a boost for his liberal crusade against Russia and China.