While it’s looking likely Donald Trump will return to the White House, Australia will be able to weather the worst of it.

On the day of the 2016 United States Presidential election, the German newspaper The Hamburger Morgenpost begged Americans not to elect the “horror clown”.

Eight years later, after a Presidential term that was more disastrous than his critics had envisaged, and an unprecedented attempt to overthrow the results of a democratic election, could the horror clown really be back?

Forecasting models, which combine data on public opinion and variables such as the performance of the US economy, are at this point predicting something close to a 50-50 chance of a Trump victory.

In the key swing states, Trump’s chances look quite good. At present, Biden is favoured for the strong performance of the US economy, but this is a double-edged sword — if the economy weakens between now and November, his chances will be even worse.

Trump’s various legal troubles do hurt him, but not much. Most Americans decided who they would vote for in 2024 years ago based on their partisan identity. The few remaining swing voters are motivated primarily by their perception of the economy.

We might not like it, but that’s the way it is. I also suspect that most observers are underestimating the chances that Trump will win, given how badly we may wish it were not so.

If he returns

So, what can we expect if Trump gets back in?

Domestically, for the US, the consequences of the return of an avowed authoritarian to the White House are dire, but I want to talk primarily about the international consequences. In so doing, I speak with two hats — as a citizen of Australia and of the United Kingdom.

As a Pom, I’m very worried. Trump simply cannot be trusted to protect Europe from its major security threat — Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

I would strongly advise whoever is in 10 Downing Street next year (almost certainly Sir Keir Starmer) to ramp up UK defence spending, especially on heavy weapons and the army, and to work closely with the EU to build up an independent European defence industry to produce munitions at scale sufficient to deter or (God forbid it is ever necessary) defeat the tyrant in the Kremlin.

As an Aussie, however, I am somewhat more sanguine. Our main security challenge is China. While Trump has occasionally praised Xi Jinping, his attitude towards the Chinese dictator is nothing like his infatuation with Putin. China has often served as a rhetorical punchbag for Trump, alongside Mexico and the Islamic Middle East.

A re-elected Trump may single out China as a major security threat. Photo: U.S. Department of State/Flickr (Public domain)

Trump vs China

So, what will foreign policy look like for a second term Trump presidency?

As far as may be discerned, it will be China that’s perceived as the major security threat to the US. It will be seen as of vital national interest to keep the People’s Republic of China bottled up inside the first island chain, far from where it could pose a threat to Australia.

Evidence for this potential policy pathway can be seen in the (very thin) foreign policy section of the Heritage Foundation’s infamous Project 2025, widely considered a program for a second Trump term.

Further evidence can also be seen in the work of Elbridge Colby, who served in the first Trump administration and is tipped by some to be a future Trump Secretary of Defense. Colby’s views, expressed cogently in his 2021 book The Strategy of Denial, are that the US must pursue a strategy of laser-like focus when it comes to preventing China from dominating the Asia-Pacific.

This dovetails with the MAGA movement’s refusal to help Ukraine — their argument being that the US should husband its resources for the Asia-Pacific and leave Ukraine to the Europeans.

How can Australia work with Trump?

I believe that Australia has less to fear from a Trump second term than Britain or Europe do.

We may not like Trump (you may have guessed that I do not), but we must remember that we are a separate country to the US and must pursue our own national interest, which means dealing with people we would not like to see running our own country.

Rhetoric about shared values will not sound convincing if Trump is in the White House. Instead, we should see the Alliance in realpolitik terms — the same way we would view cooperation with authoritarian powers, such as Vietnam, who also wish to balance Chinese power.

Australian rhetoric about shared values will not make sense if Trump gets a second term. Photo: Trump White House Archived/Flickr

Work by researchers, such as my ANU colleague Stephan Frühling, suggests that most Australians already support this approach.

I hope we never have to defend ourselves against China and I still think peace is more likely than not — but the risks of conflict are too great to ignore. Contrary to the views of some Australian analysts I do not believe that we could effectively defend ourselves against a superpower of 1.5 billion people — and a rapidly expanding army — alone.

We still need America, even with Trump. Moreover, I believe that our interests will still converge with a Trump-led America, even if our values do not.

That doesn’t mean it will be easy to work with Trump. There is always the possibility of a random and unexpected change of mind which could throw a spanner in the works of almost any policy.

While I would not expect AUKUS to be jettisoned entirely, it’s possible it may be altered to become less favourable to Australia. We could see fewer submarines delivered later — even if Biden wins, this is likely – and perhaps even a shakedown in which we’re asked to contribute more towards to recapitalising the US defence industrial base. South Korea was subjected to something similar in Trump’s first term over basing costs.

All in all, I would rather we don’t get to find out, but I reluctantly conclude there is a better than even chance we will.

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