Wake up, Britain! A second Trump presidency is now a very real possibility – and it could ruin us

Donald Trump’s historic wins on ‘Super Tuesday’ have moved the former president a step closer to a vengeful second term of office, one in which he could pull out of Nato and destroy international trade with protectionist tariffs. How should the UK brace itself, asks Sean O’Grady

Wednesday 06 March 2024 12:31 GMT
‘Superfluous Tuesday’: An elated Donald Trump on Super Tuesday
‘Superfluous Tuesday’: An elated Donald Trump on Super Tuesday (EPA)

It was like watching a horse race between two old nags that ought to have been dispatched to the knacker’s yard – and one where the only hope for excitement was waiting for one of them to collapse, to be replaced by some younger, more vigorous steed.

Yielding no surprises about who will be picked for the race to the White House, the bumper “Super Tuesday” primary results might have been better termed “superfluous Tuesday”. Bar a retirement through ill-health (not impossible, but unlikely), Joe Biden and Donald Trump will be the runners in November.

On this side of the Atlantic, we should pay less attention to such political horseplay, and rather more to what happens if Trump gets elected. He seems to have the more momentum, having improbably jumped some formidable legal fences. It is time, in other words, to start making contingency plans.

There is good reason to believe that Trump 47 will be “the same but worse” than Trump 45. As he himself declares, he has dictatorial tendencies, and intends to be even more vengeful. His policy of putting America first will be just as vigorously pursued, counterproductive as it so often proved to be. He will also have learned some lessons from his previous term of office and, if only because he never expected to win in 2016, will have some ideas of who to appoint to carry out his populist-national programme.

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The extent to which a future president Trump will control the Congress isn’t clear, but he will still be a dominant force if he wins – and, as we know from experience, prepared to bypass the rules as it suits him, protected by the indulgent Supreme Court judges he appointed. America and its constitution will be lucky to survive it, but it will be no less damaging to we Europeans.

It will not, for a start, be good news for UK exporters. What passes for a Trump economic policy is to slap a blanket 10 per cent tariff on UK exports. As the US is the UK’s single biggest foreign national market, and second biggest even if you include the EU as a bloc, this is bad news indeed. All those lovely Range Rovers, all that delicious scotch and all the Rolls-Royce aero engines we sell over there will have to bear a heavy surcharge, damaging sales, jobs and profits in the UK.

And as for the transatlantic UK-US free trade deal we thought we’d get after leaving the EU? Well, there is no reason why Trump 47 will be any more interested in getting it done than Trump 45. Even if he was, it would be a deal where the UK would be required to accept chlorinated chicken, genetically modified grain and hormone-injected meat. Even if the British swallowed all of that, the Senate, which is actually in charge of such matters, might veto it, for all the usual protectionist reasons.

Indeed, protectionism for US businesses is one of the few things that Democrats and Republicans enthusiastically agree on. Neither Biden, Trump nor anyone in Congress is going to try and deliver a US-UK trade deal and, in Trump’s case, it will be quite the opposite – more barriers to vital UK exports. Trump may be sentimental about the bust of Winston Churchill in the Oval Office, but the author of The Art of the Deal isn’t going to do the British any favours.

Never forget that, early in his presidency, Trump was on the way to an international summit focussed on the economy. His aides handed him a draft of his speech, and he scrawled across the top of the page: “TRADE IS BAD”; we’re not going to be dealing with a keen student of the works of David Ricardo. People such as Nigel Farage, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson – who think Trump would be a friend of Britain – simply underestimate him. Not for the first time.

That is even more true when it comes to global security. We in Europe cannot say we have been given fair warning. By the end of a Trump second term, Nato will effectively be over. Trump is, like his supporters, an isolationist, and after decades of foreign wars, from costly failures such as Vietnam to Iraq, Americans want an end to such entanglements.

Europe, including the UK, will need a new framework for collective security, and somehow find a way to create an equivalent to the US defence guarantee, soon to be greatly weakened. Emmanuel Macron is right that we need a European Defence Community – except Europe is too divided to build one.

Again, this should all come as no surprise. During his first term, Trump told the Europeans off for not spending more on defence, and upbraided chancellor Angela Merkel for being far too reliant on Russian gas. He was proven right about both things, but his attitude has since hardened even further.

Trump does indeed think that Vladimir Putin, of whom he is inexplicably fond, can do “what the hell he likes” with countries that don’t pay their bills, and quite possibly with some of those, such as Poland, that do. He says he’ll make peace with Putin over Ukraine in a day, and we know what that means. If Putin menaced Poland or Estonia or Bulgaria, would a Trump administration risk war with Putin? It is unthinkable. Maybe Putin would leave us alone, maybe he wouldn’t, but Europe would get bullied.

Perhaps even more significant than all of that is the damage another Trump presidency will inflict on the United States economy, and thus the world’s. This will be done through imposing inflationary trade barriers, promoting deglobalisation, adding to geopolitical instability and uncertainty, weakening the Federal Reserve and pumping inflation with artificially low interest rates, and deporting millions of migrant workers essential to US agriculture and other sectors – adding to labour costs and thus inflation. It is as though someone drew up a list of the worst aspects of recent British economic policy post-Brexit, and Trump decided to adapt and adopt it – a series of self-inflicted wounds. A weak US economy is a weak world economy.

What can the next British government do? Not much, so far as Trump is concerned. Neither Keir Starmer nor Rishi Sunak are exactly Trump’s type – but even if we had Farage as prime minister and Truss as foreign secretary, in a NatCon government, this deeply selfish president wouldn’t be doing the UK any favours on the economy or defence, nor would Congress help us. “America First” means exactly that – and, in practice, it’s “America Only”.

The best the British can hope for is that the US will still share their nuclear secrets and technology with us, and station some troops over here. Otherwise, we’ll have to build up our own defences, which will be expensive, and try to get like-minded European states to work together, which will be messy.

The net effect is that the UK – its GDP, private consumption and public services, including the NHS – will be damaged by another Trump presidency. So far from Britain being more secure and able to forge a new special relationship with Trump, we will end up humiliated and poorer.

It will be the ultimate betrayal of the UK national interest by the Brexiteers. Like Trump, they won’t admit it, and certainly won’t be saying sorry about it.

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