No laughing MAGA: What the next US presidential election could mean for Europe

Europeans should be concerned not just with whether Trump will win but how to deal with the version of post-Trump America that could emerge in 2025

“The money came roaring in”, former US president Donald Trump recalled, “when I told NATO allies that the US wouldn’t protect them unless they paid up”. Trump’s nostalgic anti-alliance boast at a recent Wyoming campaign rally helps explain the deep sense of relief in the European capitals that President Joe Biden was in office when Russia invaded Ukraine. Even prior to the war, Biden had won ample European praise for a host of un-Trumpy efforts, including rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, lifting tariffs on European steel and aluminium exports, and generally uttering much kinder words about allies and alliances. With the Biden administration’s forceful leadership in response to Russia’s invasion, many feel that the United States has now returned to its traditional role as a security provider in Europe.

But beneath this calm surface lurks the growing threat of US domestic politics – and its impact on US foreign policy. Europeans are already nervously looking towards the 2024 election and the possibility of Trump’s return. But, even if Trump suddenly decided not to stand in the election, it would not magically solve Europe’s transatlantic problem. Trends in American domestic politics mean that Europeans cannot simply assume the Biden counter-revolution will continue.

According to the MAGA narrative, traditional European allies are free-riders on US security guarantees who exploit America through unfair trade agreements

One such trend is the growing strength of the “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) foreign policy in the Republican party. Described by Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri as a nationalist foreign policy it is fundamentally a populist backlash against the conservative elites in the party and their pursuit of liberal globalism on matters of free trade, immigration, and overseas military interventions. According to the MAGA narrative, traditional European allies are free-riders on US security guarantees who exploit America through unfair trade agreements. In this telling, the allies fail to contribute their fair share to the European security order and, indeed, failed to deter Russia in Ukraine. Expressing this view, 11 Trump loyalists in the US Senate voted against the recent $40 billion military aid package to Ukraine. As JD Vance, the Republican nominee for the Senate seat in Ohio wrote, “I will be damned if I am going to prioritize Ukraine’s eastern border right now when our own southern border is engulfed by a human tsunami of illegal migrants.” For Vance and the like, Russia is not America’s main problem – in fact, they often depict Russia as less corrupt than Ukraine and as justified in its fear of NATO’s eastward enlargement.

Most Republican senators voted for the $40 billion package but see the MAGA writing on the wall. A few lonely traditional Republicans such as Senator Mitt Romney make a strident case for an internationalist policy. The rest, who might be described as MAGA-lite, are close to traditional conservatives in their foreign policy views but follow the MAGA line out of political opportunism. Even as they call for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assassination, they have adopted the Trump demand that Europeans take responsibility for their own security.

Worse, much of the European Union’s attachment to identity politics places it, from the Republican perspective, on the wrong side of America’s Kulturkampf. Republican leaders increasingly define their party in opposition to what they describe as the weakness and wokeness agenda. Polls show that identity issues and political correctness have become central to partisan divides in the US. Across the Republican Party, politicians keen to capitalise on this polarisation regularly portray the Democrats as obsessed with identity politics and unwilling to stand up for American interests around the world.

For Republicans, liberal European governments’ tendency to incorporate identity politics into their foreign policy – seen in Sweden’s feminist foreign policy, Germany’s moralistic opposition to all things military, and the European Commission’s efforts to “cancel Christmas” – echo those Democratic sins. Even nuclear-armed France is a target. Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, recently suggested that France is so weak that it would simply fold if Russia attacked.

During his time in office, Trump showed an affinity for staunchly anti-immigration Christian strongmen such as Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban (and Putin). That affinity has now enveloped much of the Republican Party, partly in a reflection of the US domestic culture war. It is so strong that the annual US Conservative Political Action Conference took place in Budapest this year. And it implies that future Republican presidents will increasingly see EU member states such as Poland and Hungary – rather than traditional allies such as France and Germany – as their ideological partners.

Et Tu, Democrats?

More surprisingly, Democrats are increasingly pushing in similar directions in foreign policy – at least when it comes to foreign trade and overseas interventions. Pressure from the progressive wing of the party and the need to win back white working-class votes from the Republicans have created some surprising overlaps between Trump’s and Biden’s foreign policies.

Biden’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan regardless of how his NATO allies felt about it had a strong flavour of MAGA. That decision is easiest to understand from the perspective of the American voters Biden was catering to. They saw not a war to defend the rights of Afghan women but the large number of broken families and veterans with PTSD, the crushing statistics of 17 veteran suicides a day, and the overall notion that the war in Afghanistan brought no benefits for ordinary Americans. Large parts of Biden’s speech on Afghanistan spoke to these groups – just as his American foreign policy for the middle class speaks to US workers in manufacturing, farming, and fishing.

Biden’s trade policy similarly illustrates the tension between a commitment to international cooperation and domestic considerations. For instance, Biden’s Buy American Act expands domestic preference in procurement and increases domestic-content requirements for products. This reflects growing bipartisan support for protectionism in US trade policy. Equally, Democrats and Republicans are becoming more supportive of efforts to fill holes in broken supply chains through re-shoring and boosted US production capacity.

Overall, Democrats remain more committed than Republicans to an internationalist foreign policy and traditional allies. But domestic political pressures on Democrats’ positions on trade and military interventionism will gradually erode this commitment.

2024 and beyond

So, Europeans should be concerned not just with whether Trump will win but how to deal with the version of post-Trump America that could emerge in 2025. While the 2024 election remains deeply unpredictable, trends in US domestic politics suggest that some of the shifts discussed above will occur no matter who wins.

One is the emerging consensus between the two parties on issues of trade, interventionism, and the China challenge – which will affect Europe’s security and trade arrangements. Even after Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, the pressure to refocus resources to deal with China will inevitably accelerate the trend of US disengagement from eastern Europe and the Middle East, regions that Europe cannot stabilise on its own.

A second shift is the spillover of America’s culture war – which draws in an unwilling Europe – into US foreign policy. As during Trump’s presidency, battles between Republicans and Democrats over identity politics are likely to divide both the US from Europe and eastern Europe from western Europe.

Clearly, German and Swedish leaders are not about to become less ‘woke’ to please US Republicans. But they should appreciate how fragile the relationship with the US has become, given the country’s extreme domestic polarisation, and should work on eliminating some of the sources of this fragility. Insisting on a strong transatlantic bond based on shared values, as European officials did during Trump’s term in office, is a strategy of denial that will improve neither their relationship with the US nor stability in the EU’s neighbourhood.

The Europeans would thus be best advised to focus on tangible policy achievements, such as the creation of independent European military capabilities and an intra-EU consensus strong enough to weather the coming storm. Especially since MAGA without Trump may turn out to be worse than MAGA under Trump.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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