What if: Ukraine in a Trump Second Term

I think that I was relatively realistic about the outlines of how bad America’s possibilities were even before the 2020 election, whatever its outcome. Experiencing it still feels awful, but I can’t claim that I really expected far better. What did I write, among other things, how about “I only know that in any and every realistic scenario I can imagine, America will blow up.” I wrote that the election still mattered because a Biden presidency could prevent various atrocities; I probably meant in the sense of preventing them for a while, which seems like the most generous thing which can now be said of how it’s working out.

I certainly can not claim that I was thinking about the fate of Ukraine, ahead of the 2020 election. It is nonetheless arguable that the fate of Ukraine, and maybe partially Europe, has turned on the 2020 US election result. Jonathan Chait argued a month ago that “If Trump Was Still President, Ukraine Would Be So Screwed Right Now,” and it does not seem unthinkable.

If you want to imagine a Trumpian response to the invasion, merely project the voting record of the America First wing onto the executive branch.

The sanctions put together by the Biden administration would almost certainly not exist. There would likely be little or no military assistance or intelligence sharing. NATO might not exist at all.

Trump’s anger at the “deep state” was not mere paranoia. The bureaucracy often thwarted his goals — most notably around Ukraine, where his efforts to withhold military aid and extort Volodymyr Zelensky into smearing Joe Biden ultimately petered out. But a reelected, or reinstalled, President Trump would have a much freer hand. Had 44,000 votes in Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin swung the other way, Zelensky would probably at this moment be in exile, in a Russian prison, or dead.

Jonathan Chait

I don’t want to underrate Ukraine. It seems to be a society which recognized a danger, got itself together, and prepared quite well to fight for itself. Assuming a similar Russian invasion, it seems like Russian hopes of rolling into Kyiv and conquering at least half of Ukraine in a blitzkrieg would not have panned out especially better with Trump in the White House.

After that, however…?

I think Chait is likely correct that Ukrainian refugees would have found no special welcome from the US, under a Trump presidency. So that’s one thing.

I also think we ought to recognize that Ukraine’s government has been vocal and consistent in declaring that it needs help. So, on this basis, support from the US (which Trump would not have provided) has been meaningful.

There are reasonable arguments that US sanctions are already impairing Russian military capabilities.

There are always second-order counterfactuals to consider, however, and it’s difficult for me to say what might happen in Europe. Is it conceivable that Trump might have withdrawn the US from NATO in 2021? Conceivable yes, I would say. Would NATO have folded up? I don’t know about that. Much of Europe and its governing classes hate Trump, and I suspect that in at least some ways, Europe might have done more for Ukraine in response to a Trump presidency acting (at minimum) passively supportive of Russia.

But, ultimately, I think the simplest scenario is likeliest, and more help would be more helpful. Even without supposing that Biden’s leadership and diplomacy have made the difference between a European response which has surpassed expectations (and at least in ambition is now starting to surpass the US), and a European response of muddle and weakness, I suspect that it has made some meaningful difference vs. a US-Russia axis if Trump were president.

Beyond this, it seems very hard to project before we even know how things play out in this timeline. Probably, Putin has set in motion a long-term strategic disaster for Russia, and probably that’s a fair amount worse than it would be with a Trump presidency supporting, instead, continued good-standing membership in the international community for Russia. Whatever Russia achieved in Ukraine, it would probably not be as discouraged as it seems now. Russian elites could at least look forward to continuing to bite pieces off Ukraine, and to feeling smug at getting away with that. This would conceivably have consequences for expectations and alignments around the world, just as the Capitol Putsch did. I’m not sure that any of this would have resurrected an evil empire, threatening world domination, but the two alternatives probably amount to a meaningful gain or loss for the liberal “West” vs Autocracy Inc.

I am still, more and more, a “broad historical forces” type of historian. But to the extent that anything matters—and I do hold onto that—sucking it up and helping to elect this dinosaur bullshitter president in place of crime capo Trump at least did significant good for Ukraine and maybe some good for liberal democracy as a going concern on planet Earth.

As more and more of American politics just looks like hopeless fraud, meanwhile, I find some minor solace in the fact that I at least made efforts to deter others from wrapping the bamboozle even more tightly around us. In particular, I really tried to avoid nominating this inveterate bullshitter as de facto leader of the fight for democracy in America; I gave it my all, and while yeah, I think things were much too far gone no matter what, at least I tried to push away from fraud. That’s something.

But, after that failed, I also made some contribution to getting the bullshitter elected president in place of the crime capo. It seems to have done very limited, and temporary, good for America. But very possibly it has done some other good. That’s also something.

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