A Most Important American Election Looms in 2024

It is cliche to say that the world stands at a crossroads and that this year will be critical in determining the course of future history. Unfortunately, the year 2024 will indeed be such a turning point in which world politics could move in one of two very different directions. There will be a number of critical elections, in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Mexico, Britain, and Europe; Taiwan has already taken a vote for a new president, Lai Ching-te, of the Democratic People’s Party. But the most important upcoming election by far will be the one taking place in November in the United States.

Following on his victory in the Iowa Caucuses on Jan. 15, it is all but certain that Americans will be voting for either former President Donald Trump, or current President Joe Biden. At the moment, Donald Trump has a clear advantage in the polls. President Biden’s approval ratings have been dropping precipitously over the past year; at the moment, according to the poll aggregator FiveThirtyEight, his approval rating stands at only 39%, which is significantly lower than that of any other incumbent president in recent U.S. history. U.S. elections are not determined by popular vote, but rather by an electoral college that gives Republicans a built-in advantage. A presidential candidate must win a series of swing states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Minnesota to be elected nationally. And polling data at this point has been showing Trump leading Biden in many of those contests.

Normally, Americans vote based on their policy preferences on issues like taxes, health care, crime, and immigration. Donald Trump does have different positions on such questions from Joe Biden. But the stakes in this election are far greater than any of these particular issues; the contest is ultimately about the fate of liberal democracy itself in the United States, and the future of the world order.

Fears of dictatorship

Let’s begin with a single fact: Donald Trump clearly lost the 2020 election to Biden, and yet he conspired to hold on to power by concocting a plan to have Vice President Mike Pence fail to certify the election results. When Pence refused to do Trump’s bidding, he incited the mob that then stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. This is what has led to multiple criminal indictments of Trump and his co-conspirators at both federal and state levels. What is appalling about the state of the contemporary Republican Party is that far from seeking to hold Trump accountable for this anti-democratic act, a significant number of Republicans have tried to excuse, justify, or downplay the seriousness of this assault on the most fundamental institution of democracy, which is the peaceful transfer of power.

It has become very clear that a second Trump term will be much more extreme and destructive than the first, and serious concerns have been raised that Trump will push the U.S. towards dictatorship. He speaks admiringly of the ability of dictators like Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and Kim Jong Un to “control their societies”; he has talked about suspending the Constitution in order to return himself to power; he has suggested that shoplifters be shot and killed by the police without any due process; and he has vowed to use the Justice Department to go after his political enemies like the alleged “Biden crime family.” He has called immigrants to the U.S. “vermin” who are “poisoning the blood” of the United States, and vowed to build camps and arrest millions of undocumented aliens in the country. Trump’s allies at the conservative Heritage Foundation have been working on a “Project 2025” that would seek to gut the U.S. Civil Service and replace as many as 50,000 bureaucrats with Trump loyalists. And he has vowed to pardon the dozens of convicted Jan. 6 rioters whom he and other Republicans characterize not as criminals but as political “hostages.”

Many of the greatest consequences of a Trump victory will come in foreign policy. Trump has made clear his desire to withdraw from the NATO alliance. Even if formal withdrawal becomes legally difficult, he reportedly told EU Commission head Ursula von der Leyen that he will not intervene to protect Europe from external attack, thereby vitiating NATO’s Article 5 security guarantee. Vladimir Putin has staked his hopes for victory over Ukraine on a Trump return to the presidency in 2024; already, a significant number of Republicans in the House have refused to vote for further military assistance to Ukraine.

This reflects a broader turn away from democracy and towards isolationism in Trump’s reconfigured Republican Party. The former president talks frequently about his ability to do deals with dictators; he has for example said that he could end the Ukraine war in a few days. What this means is that he is willing to make concessions at the expense of American allies in order to avoid having to come to their defense. This will surely apply to American Asian allies like Japan and South Korea. While Trump and the Republicans like to talk tough towards China, it is not at all clear that they are willing to defend Taiwan or do much to support democratic allies in East Asia.

Nor has Trump abandoned his economic nationalism. He has asserted that he will impose an across-the-board 10% tariff on all foreign goods coming into the United States. President Biden has also pursued nationalistic policies seeking to bring manufacturing of strategic goods like semiconductors back to the U.S., but Trump does not distinguish between friendly democratic allies and hostile authoritarian powers — all will be sanctioned by his trade policies.

Huge global consequences

The Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel’s punishing response have created further challenges. There remains a significant likelihood that the conflict will escalate throughout the Middle East, to directly involve Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran itself. Iran’s allies the Houthis in Yemen have already attacked Red Sea shipping and have drawn a military response from a coalition led by the United States. Conflict in the Middle East has exposed further domestic divisions in the U.S. It turns out that the Palestinians have considerable support from the global Left, and particularly among young people; Joe Biden’s strong initial support for Israel has cost him among Arab and other non-white voters in critical swing states like Michigan.

American foreign and domestic policy have thus become completely intertwined. Trump’s populist movement feels greater kinship with fellow nationalists like those in Putin’s Russia or Viktor Orban’s Hungary. The former president has stated that his internal enemies — by which he means liberals and the Democratic Party — are more dangerous to America than any foreign foe. China and Russia have opportunistically sought to strengthen Trump because his extreme brand of polarization weakens American resolve.

Given American prestige and power, a Trump victory in November’s election will have huge consequences for global politics and will encourage authoritarian leaders all over the world. A resounding victory for Biden and the Democrats, on the other hand, would be yet another loss for Trump and his MAGA allies, and might finally begin to break the deadly polarization in U.S. politics. But there is a third and perhaps more sinister possible outcome, which would be a narrow Biden victory that will almost inevitably be challenged by Trump and the Republicans. It is almost inevitable that Trump and his allies will contest the legitimacy of an election that they lose. Many of them are armed and angry, and have already threatened judges, prosecutors, election officials, and other politicians who are seen as standing in Trump’s way.

So November’s contest in the U.S. will therefore not be an ordinary election. It may be as significant as the 1860 election that brought Abraham Lincoln to power and precipitated the American Civil War. But the U.S. in 1860 was a young country at the fringes of world politics; today, it is central to military alliances and economic ties that bind it to every region of the world.

Before we despair, however, we have to remember that many things can change in the nine months before the vote. Trump is likely to be tried in criminal court while he is campaigning for president, something that has never happened in U.S. history previously. The willingness of moderate voters to support him may weaken when they are forced to confront the reality of his record. For the sake of the current world order, let’s hope that this happens.

Francis Fukuyama

Francis Fukuyama is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

The Japanese translation of this article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun’s Feb. 4 issue.