The Trump Apocalypse Has Not Been Canceled

American democracy and its support for historical alliances remain under threat from within.

Double vision of the Capitol dome
Stefani Reynolds / Bloomberg / Getty

The headline yesterday in the German newspaper Der Spiegel summarized the mood among America’s allies: “The Trump Apocalypse Has Been Canceled.” Clearly the midterm results were excellent news for European leaders who continue to need support from Washington. But they shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that America has fully cast off Trumpism.

Heading into Tuesday’s midterm elections, senior officials in Europe worried privately that voters would breathe fresh life into Trumpian isolationism. If a “red wave” had indeed materialized as expected, that would have empowered figures within the Republican Party who were growing more vocal about distancing Washington from the war in Ukraine.

That stance was most loudly advocated by figures such as Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a staunch isolationist and Putin apologist and Washington’s most conspiratorial crackpot. She recently pledged that “under Republicans, not another penny will go to Ukraine.” Kevin McCarthy, the aspiring speaker of the House should Republicans take that chamber, said he would stop writing a “blank check” for Ukraine. Former President Donald Trump has also directly criticized American support for Ukraine as excessive.

But the bigger threat was a longer-term one: the return of Trump himself in 2024, a specter that continues to haunt allied politicians who try to convince their constituents of the value of being strategic friends with the United States. If more candidates endorsed by Trump had surged to victory, that would have strengthened his prospects. The reverse happened.

Why worry so much about Trump? Because he’s a strongman ideologue who appears to take pleasure in denigrating America’s alliances and insulting historical partners, but also in finding countless ways to praise one of America’s most dangerous adversaries, Vladimir Putin.

“The overriding fear in Europe is a return of Trump,” Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a former president of Estonia, told me. “A landslide would have strengthened the hand of the isolationists. It seems the ‘old GOP’ of the McCain mold did not do badly.” Of course, that old guard has mostly been purged from the Republican Party or been transformed into something unrecognizable by Trump’s populism. But Ilves is right that a reasonably large number of senior Republicans still believe that America’s long-standing commitment to NATO and other allies is a valuable pillar of Washington’s foreign policy. They continue to accept, albeit sometimes grudgingly, that helping Ukraine and defending Europe against Russian aggression is in America’s interest.

In 2016, countries that had based their foreign policy on a security umbrella and a trading relationship with the United States learned that, with just one isolationist election cycle, the umbrella could be snapped shut, the tight-knit trade unraveled by tariffs and insults. As a result, some in the policy world assumed that European countries would start to hedge their geopolitical bets, moving away from Washington and seeking more reliable partners, while beginning to take responsibility for their own security.

But that hedge never really happened, because the transatlantic alliance is the only realistic option. Some European politicians have flirted with getting deeper into bed with Putin for Russian oil and natural gas, or staking their long-term strategy on being more closely tied to Beijing. But in 2022, neither path appears appealing, sensible, or politically feasible. The war in Ukraine has made Russia an international pariah. President Xi Jinping’s authoritarianism and human-rights abuses have increased domestic pressure on American allies to turn away from China. And India, Japan, or Brazil isn’t exactly a viable replacement for an alliance with the United States.

And Europe simply isn’t in a position to go it alone on security. After all, the European Union has provided just 2.5 billion euros in military aid to Ukraine, with Germany adding just over a billion more and France a measly 220 million. The U.S. government, by contrast, had pledged or provided nearly 30 billion euros of military assistance as of early October. For the foreseeable future, Europe and Britain still desperately need the United States.

The midterm results were therefore clearly better for the Western security alliance than an alternative scenario, in which Republicans swept Congress and Trump emerged as an invincible political kingmaker. But the rebuke to Trump embedded in the election outcomes should not make Europe complacent. Too many in London and Brussels are underreacting to the risks of a semi-authoritarian, isolationist United States, a realistic possibility in the not-so-distant future, with or without Trump.

Granted, some aspects of European security have already been bolstered by the war in Ukraine. The biggest change, according to Ilves, is the application of Sweden and Finland to join NATO, which, in his view, “completely changes the security of Northern Europe, with the Baltic Sea turning into a NATO lake.”

Nonetheless, European leaders are not moving far or fast enough, perhaps because they don’t fully realize how crazy and conspiratorial the Trumpian base has become: The most extreme have gone all in on rejecting the results of the 2020 election, and one in four party members believes in the core tenets of the deranged QAnon conspiracy theory. The loonier and more dangerous features of Trumpworld, which dominated headlines across Europe during the early days of the Trump administration, have mostly faded from the foreign press. If you pay attention only to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the ratcheting extremism and unapologetic authoritarianism within the Trumpian base may be obscured.

European leaders are, for now, relieved. Aid to Ukraine will continue to flow. America will remain committed to tackling climate change, rather than be led by a man who denies its existence. A powerful ally will still have their back, for now. But the surprising results of the midterms should not fool anyone. The foreign-policy consensus is splintering in Washington, and it can no longer be taken for granted that America will remain a democratic stalwart. Its democracy, and its support for historical alliances, remain under threat from within.