The Most Important Election. Ever.
Why the fate of the American republic—and the world—could depend on what happens Nov. 3.
Pick your historical precedent. In each case, the direction and very survival of the American republic were at stake. There was the close election of 1800 between Aaron Burr—an unprincipled fellow with dictatorial impulses who was in some ways the Donald Trump of his day—and Thomas Jefferson. The 1860 contest in which Abraham Lincoln faced off against Stephen Douglas, with the Civil War looming. Or the 1932 election during the Great Depression, the stakes of which were so consequential that when Franklin D. Roosevelt was warned he’d be known as the worst president in U.S. history if his recovery program failed, FDR reportedly replied, “If it fails, I’ll be the last one.”
An extraordinary consensus exists among historians, political scientists, diplomats, national security officials, and other experts that the stakes of the U.S. presidential election between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden this November rise to these portentous historical standards. Indeed the stakes may go well beyond that, considering the central place the United States today holds in the global system—in a way it did not as a much younger nation in 1800, 1860, or even 1932.
Some suggest that Trump and the malign forces he has summoned up have already done so much damage to the institutions of U.S. democracy—especially his failure to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and his open encouragement of racial violence and national division—that his reelection in November could damage forever the 244-year-old American experiment of a republic of laws. After a first term in which Trump has openly defied Congress and the courts, twisted foreign policy to serve his political interests, dismissed electoral norms, and turned a terrified Republican Party into his plaything, his return to power would, in effect, legitimize the gutting of the institutions of law and what remains of the founders’ checks and balances. Reelection would vindicate his view that as president he can, as Trump said, “do whatever I want.” It would all but destroy, in other words, the American conceit that the United States is a different kind of democracy than has existed in the past, leaving the country as just another abject discard on the ash heap of failed republics going back to ancient Rome and Greece.
The concern is shared by many Republicans—former senior officials who worked for previous Republican administrations stretching back to Ronald Reagan, including several who worked for Trump himself. Some have openly warned that a second Trump term represents an existential threat to American democracy.
“This is a kind of fulcrum moment,” said Edward J. Watts, a University of California, San Diego historian and the author of Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny. “If Trump is reelected, then I think the norms and restraints of American democracy disappear completely,” in ways that echo what went awry in past republics. Even if Biden wins, Watts added, U.S. recovery will be a long time coming.
“There’s no question in my mind that it’s the most important election in American history. The stakes are just enormous,” said Charles Kupchan, a Georgetown University political scientist, former diplomat, and the author of Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself From the World. “One term is bad enough, but if Trump is reelected, Americans and people around the world would no longer be able to say the American electorate made a mistake. Instead it would be an affirmation this is the direction Americans want to go.”
Kupchan said the reason this contest is more consequential than those critical elections in 1800 and 1860 is that “the United States was not the most powerful country in the world during those times.
“Basically we stayed out of other people’s hair then. That’s not the case today, when you have a country this big that has so profoundly lost its way. We are entering an unforgiving period in history. The balance of power is changing. During the era of post-Cold War unipolarity, the system was more forgiving. Even during the Cold War, when the U.S. made a mistake here and there, like Vietnam, it didn’t knock the world off kilter. But at a moment when the West has lost its material preponderance [to China and Asia] at the same time as it’s begun to stumble politically, that’s a double whammy of historic proportions.”
Indeed, because the United States occupies such a central place in stabilizing the global system, the election of 2020 could be compared to other important global realignments that transformed the fates of previous great powers, empires, and diplomatic constructs of international stability.
“Internationally, it is a world-historical moment—America’s role in the world, and the organization of the global system, is also on the ballot,” said John Ikenberry of Princeton University, the author of A World Safe for Democracy, a book chronicling two centuries of liberal internationalism. “If Trump wins, the whole postwar liberal order continues to unravel, and democratic and other allies of the U.S., who are hedging and hoping that the U.S. will return to playing a ‘system role,’ will start making other plans.”
Harvard University’s Joseph Nye, also one of the leading political scientists and diplomats of his day, agrees. In an interview, Nye quoted a leading diplomat from an allied European nation as telling him recently: “We can hold our breath for four years. Eight years is too much.”
According to former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder, if Trump is reelected or manages to seize power by contesting the election—he is already accusing Democrats of fraud and in late September refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power—it would be tantamount to a formal divorce from Europe and the West. It would mean that “the way Americans view themselves has become completely alien to what used to be the European view of America.” For four years, Trump has derided long-standing European allies and recently, in a fit of pique, announced he was withdrawing thousands of U.S. troops from Germany. The U.S. government’s inept response to the COVID-19 pandemic has only solidified this sense of alienation and frank disgust, Daalder said.
(In August, a special report from FP Analytics ranked the United States 31st out of 36 countries for its response to the coronavirus pandemic, coming in below Brazil, Ethiopia, India, and Russia. The report found that the United States ranked so poorly because of the federal government’s inability to mount an appropriate scientific response; inadequate emergency health care spending; insufficient testing and hospital beds; and limited debt relief.)
So abysmal has been the country’s performance under Trump that the Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole wrote in April that for the first time the United States is provoking pity from the rest of the world, which sent disaster relief to Washington rather than the other way around.
“What happened during COVID-19 represents the pinnacle to this disgust,” Daalder said. “The COVID response shows so clearly the deep problems with the American system—with our health care infrastructure, the income inequality and racial problems that persist. America has become something to be looked down at.”
The best hope, many pundits and scholars say, is that Trump is soundly defeated in November and accepts that outcome, even though he has suggested he won’t. Eventually he comes to be seen by the world—and by history—as a strange aberration, a one-of-a-kind oddity whose jingoism, narcissism, and incompetence are unlikely to come along again, whether in a Republican or Democratic president. The United States then rejoins the global system—with its usual blend of nativist reluctance and exceptionalist arrogance, yes, but on a more moderate (or, to be precise, adult) level than during the Trump era.
Under this scenario, a newly inaugurated President Biden, who is a deeply experienced internationalist committed to U.S. alliances, and his multicultural vice president, Kamala Harris, act swiftly to restore U.S. prestige by reversing Trump’s worst failures on COVID-19, political polarization, the economy, global stability, and climate change, as Biden has promised to do. Pointing out that Trump has failed to replace the many international agreements he has torn up, Biden would immediately rejoin and work to shore up the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris agreement on climate change, which he helped champion as Barack Obama’s vice president (and which the United States is scheduled to complete its withdrawal from on Nov. 4, one day after the election). Going by his campaign promises, he will try to revive the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that Trump has discarded and begin talks to extend the Obama-era New START nuclear reduction pact (which would expire only a few weeks into his term, though even now Trump is seeking to blow it up).
Biden would also likely seek to restore something like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the most comprehensive trade deal in history (which has been kept breathing in reduced form by Japan, the United States’ closest ally in Asia, since Trump pulled out of that accord as well). Because the TPP was designed to exclude and pressure Beijing into accepting fair-and-open trade norms, Biden could thereby do far more than Trump has done to confront a rising China and continue to co-opt it into the global system. Meanwhile a paralyzed and polarized Congress—so traumatized by Trumpian divisions, investigations, and impeachment for the past four years—starts working more effectively again (especially if Democrats win the Senate as well as the House, ending the legislative stalemate).
But even in this scenario it’s hard to imagine that things go back to the way they were pre-Trump. Biden, for example, will find it difficult to simply resurrect the INF Treaty and TPP, in part because he must accommodate the powerful progressive wing in his own party, which rejects untrammeled free trade pacts and overcommitment to a U.S. military presence overseas. Biden has already said he would not simply rejoin the TPP as it existed, for example, but would seek to renegotiate it to include “strong rules of origin” requiring more manufacturing in the United States and has also said, before entering any new international trade deal, he would focus on a Trump-like $400 billion “Buy America” initiative to boost domestic production. Support for the World Trade Organization, which was fathered by Democrats under President Bill Clinton, is fast waning inside the party as well, amid Trump’s accusations that China has unfairly abused its rules to rob middle-class Americans of their jobs. And Biden, like Trump, has been seeking to pare down the United States’ role overseas for years; even as Obama’s vice president, he argued vociferously against a U.S. buildup in Afghanistan and negotiated an accelerated withdrawal from Iraq.
Indeed, perhaps the greater threat is that the stakes of this election are not quite as momentous as the optimists hope—and that Trump, even if he loses power, proves to be less an aberration and more a symptom of a country that is no longer functioning well, whether as a republic or a global stabilizer, and can’t be fully trusted again.
“If you’re European, you’re saying to yourself, ‘If this country, which we have basically counted on since 1945, can produce something as unpredictable as ‘Trump Island’ and it remains so polarized, how do we know what’s going to happen in 2024 and ’28?’” Nye said.
After all, Trump’s neoisolationism didn’t spring from nowhere; it had a lot of popular support and still does. In his new book, Kupchan argues that America’s embrace of internationalism is more an aberration than the norm in U.S. history—and he says that even for a President Biden and subsequent U.S. leaders, “it’s not going to be going back to the old foreign policy. We’re not going back to the institutionalized, treaty-based system that emerged after World War II. The votes in the Senate won’t be there.” To that point, a survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs released in September shows an unprecedented breakdown in the old consensus in support of Washington’s role, demonstrating the “Trumpification” of the Republican Party, in Daalder’s words.
Perhaps the greatest fear among U.S. allies is that, to a degree Americans once hoped they had transcended, the American republic may simply be caught up in an inevitable cycle of history by which great powers grow complacent and decadent and eventually collapse or wither away. Prominent realist thinkers such as John Mearsheimer have long argued that American-style liberal internationalism contains the seeds of its own destruction: excessive ambition and overreach. “Liberalism has an activist mentality woven into its core,” Mearsheimer has written. “The belief that all humans have a set of inalienable rights, that protecting these rights should override other [domestic] concerns, creates a powerful incentive for liberal states to intervene” abroad.
In recent decades, both Republican and Democratic presidents gave in to this impulse to differing degrees—from Vietnam to Bosnia to Iraq. And in 2016, Trump realized, as his Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton did not, that many Americans had grown weary of being global caretakers when so much was going awry at home, especially the decimation of the middle class under the aegis of rapid globalization. Biden is unlikely to make the same mistake.
Thus in his crude way Trump has been channeling the deepest of U.S. traditions and the fears of America’s founders, who were always worried about overreach in foreign conflict and constantly warned against its self-destructive effects, including the rise of demagogues like Trump. Most famously, John Quincy Adams said in 1821 that America must not go “in search of monsters to destroy” abroad; to do so, Adams said, would corrupt the very character of the nation: “The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.” In the spring of 2016, a senior Trump campaign advisor told me that Trump’s first major foreign-policy speech—in which he declared that “the world must know we do not go abroad in search of enemies”—was intended as a conscious echo of Adams and a rebuke of his predecessors and their reckless interventions in Iraq and Libya.
The United States is hardly the first major power to see itself as an exception in the history of nations—and to overextend and exhaust itself in the end because of the hubris that accompanies such delusions. “’Tis but the same rehearsal of the past / First Freedom, and then Glory—when that fails / Wealth, vice, corruption—barbarism at last,” Lord Byron wrote. There is, as the historian Watts suggested, a discomfiting lineage here going back to the fall of the Roman Republic more than two millenniums ago. In his 2007 book, Are We Rome?—written in response to George W. Bush’s disastrous attempt to democratize the Arab world by invading Iraq—Cullen Murphy observed: “At the most expansive, strategic level of all, that of historic purpose, both Rome and America have considered their way to be the world’s way.” Much as the founding generations of Americans saw Providence’s hand at work in their idealized republic, the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder described Rome as “a land chosen by divine providence to unify empires so disparate and races so manifold; to bring to common concord so many rough, discordant voices; to give culture to mankind; to become, in short, the whole world’s homeland.”
In the case of ancient Rome, this conceit proved to be ultimately fatal in the arrogance and geopolitical excess it spawned. “The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay,” Edward Gibbon wrote in his classic The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Nor was the United States the first great power to close itself off xenophobically, even at the height of its power and influence, to immigrants and foreigners.
Hence even a Biden administration may find that the American people, like the corrupted ancient Roman plebeians and patricians, are no longer up to the task of world leadership and that they no longer desire to finance and maintain their predecessors’ brainchild, the liberal international system. The U.S. education system is badly broken, and many voters simply no longer comprehend the benefits of a global free trade system or how a network of military alliances keeps the United States safe (and actually costs less than if it were to deploy troops at home) or how Washington has fended off global challengers by supporting the international institutions it created. It then becomes far more difficult for mainstream Republicans and Democrats in the future to restore the old consensus on the United States’ global leadership role.
In his presidential farewell address almost 60 years ago, Dwight D. Eisenhower warned that an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” would be necessary to ensure the United States’ future. But many Americans may no longer care about asking, or answering, fundamental questions about their role in keeping world peace, his granddaughter Susan Eisenhower, the author of the new book How Ike Led, said in an interview. “That’s the tragedy here. If we don’t feel like doing it anymore, who’s going to do it for us? And we don’t like the answer to that question either. But not enough people are asking that question.”
Trump here is, once again, more an outcome than a cause of larger historical forces. He rose to the presidency out of nowhere on a platform of “America First” populism in part because many Americans were angered by the poor policy choices offered to them by mainstream Republicans and Democrats, whether it was the parties’ cavalier approach to China’s swift economic rise, which cost the American middle class millions of jobs, or the disastrous invasion of Iraq. (According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, large majorities of both Democrats and Republicans agree with Trump’s harsh view of China.)
But Trump also succeeded by exploiting the gap between the ever increasing complexity of the global system and an electorate that has struggled to keep apace. (As Trump himself declared exuberantly on the 2016 campaign trail: “I love the poorly educated.”) He fomented and then rode a new wave of xenophobia and neoisolationism, and it is unlikely these trends are going away soon. In the current election, Trump is again inciting the anger of his nativist, white-majority base by creating new divisions in American society—campaigning as the law-and-order president in the face of civil unrest over police killings of Black Americans. He is ordering federal forces into cities that aren’t requesting them. But the kind of law and order Trump is peddling is akin to that of autocrats going back to the Caesars, who garbed themselves in republican pretense even as they became dictators while the complaisant Romans let their republic be slowly snuffed out, Watts said.
“The key lesson is that what happened in ancient Rome is still relevant. It is possible for a powerful state to retain the illusion of democracy or republican values long after those values have become nonfunctional.”
It’s a mistake, of course, to overdraw historical analogies. Even at its imperialist worst, the United States is far more different than similar to ancient Rome and other failed republics. And no one doubts that the difference between a second Trump term and the election of Biden will have enormous consequences, especially for Washington’s involvement in the world. “The policy choices on offer are stark,” Kupchan said. “From 1941 through the Obama administration, there weren’t fundamental differences between Republicans and Democrats on foreign policy. Certainly this was true during the Cold War and somewhat less true during the ’90s: Both parties still more or less adhered to the liberal internationalist playbook. But Trump really wants to tear it all up.” Biden, by contrast, will keep the current structure even if he tries to minimize Washington’s global role in response to popular domestic demand.
In that respect, the stakes of the current election, Kupchan said, resemble more what happened in the elections of 1900 and 1920, when the United States’ global role also was a central issue. The outcomes of those elections were almost diametrically opposite. In 1900, incumbent Republican President William McKinley had just turned the United States into an empire, in effect, by winning the Spanish-American War and assuming control of colonies; he was contending with Democrat William Jennings Bryan, who ran on an explicitly anti-imperialist agenda. “McKinley cleaned Bryan’s clock,” Kupchan noted. The contrary example occurred in 1920, when a war-weary United States was fed up with Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat who had taken the nation into World War I and was proposing a broad new global projection of U.S. power. But the U.S. Senate repeatedly rejected participation in his League of Nations.
“Wilson says this election is a referendum on the League,” Kupchan recounted. “Warren Harding responds, ‘Over my dead body. We want nothing to do with the League of Nations. We are Americans and nationalists and not globalists.’ Much like Trump now.” Wilson’s anointed successor, James M. Cox, then lost to Harding in what is still the most lopsided election in U.S. history, crushed by a margin of 26 percent of the popular vote.
There is an interesting footnote to this history, however. Cox’s vice presidential running mate in that devastating Democratic loss was a young Franklin D. Roosevelt. As we know, FDR later made quite a comeback, restoring American power and prestige and becoming the primary author of its global leadership role today. And no one should count out another American comeback, especially if Trump becomes history in the next few months.
This story appears in the Fall 2020 print issue.
Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh