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Trump's debate failure against Biden is a savage blow to MBS, Putin and Johnson

For populists and dictators around the world, Trump’s setback last night means their own grip on power may be ebbing away too

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden (L) and US President Donald Trump speaking during the first 2020 election debate on 29 September (AFP)

Mohammed bin Salman, Narendra Modi, Vladimir Putin, Benjamin Netanyahu, Mohammed bin Zayed, Jair Bolsonaro and Boris Johnson.

They all share the same guilty secret.

They need US President Donald Trump to win a second term in the presidential election due on 3 November. I have little doubt they would have been backing Trump as he bullied and blustered his way through last night’s presidential debate.

They have their own reasons. 

A Biden victory

For the Saudi crown prince, also known as MBS, Trump’s failure to win a second term would be a catastrophic blow to his ambitions to rebuild the Middle East as king of Saudi Arabia. The Trump family is deeply bound up with MBS's political project.

For the Saudi crown prince, Trump’s failure to win a second term would be a catastrophic blow to his ambitions

Biden will put a stop to that. It will be an existential blow to Mohammed bin Salman.

A Trump defeat would also upset Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (also known as MBZ), the mastermind behind the Saudi crown prince’s political ambitions. 

If Trump goes, MBZ will not be threatened internally, but his plans to place his tiny Gulf nation in effective control of the Gulf and the region will be. Hence the attraction of normalisation with Israel as an insurance policy.

Without Trump, MBS will still be able to become king of Saudi Arabia, but with Biden in power, the CIA and the Pentagon will both return to the fore as far as US relations with the kingdom are concerned.

Their man, Mohammed bin Nayef, is languishing in prison or house arrest. In Washington, the climate will become chillier for Saudi Arabia. Biden will do nothing to tame Congressional inquiries into MBS' many plots and assassinations. In Riyadh, the Saudi crown prince will certainly be less secure knowing that he can not pick up the phone to Jared Kushner.

Netanyahu is a shrewd politician who will adapt to a Democratic presidency, but Biden will not duplicate Trump’s contempt for Palestinian rights. India’s Prime Minister Modi finds Trump’s disgusting anti-Muslim rhetoric reassuring. For Modi, Biden will be a more difficult customer.

It’s easy to see why the Russian president supports Trump. His presidency has delegitimised Western democracies and disrupted Nato. Trump's "America First" stance leaves a space for Russia to enact its foreign policy agenda in Ukraine and the Middle East.

A Biden presidency that reverts to more traditional US foreign policy, allegiances, defence of human rights and active involvement in international organisations will be bad for Putin.

China is more complicated. There are reports that the Chinese Communist Party is divided about which candidate it wants to win. But as with Putin, Trump’s contempt for the international order suits China’s expansionist policies much better.

Black Lives Matter protesters gather in Wade Park to protest for Black lives and against U.S. President Donald Trump ahead of the first presidential debate on September 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Black Lives Matter protesters protest against US President Donald Trump ahead of the first presidential debate on 29 September, in Cleveland, Ohio (AFP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is another leader who may be concerned about a Biden presidency. While Trump and Erdogan enjoy a close relationship, reportedly exchanging regular telephone calls, Biden is a different proposition. Last month, Turkey condemned Biden after a video went viral of the Democrat candidate calling Erdogan an "autocrat".

On Tuesday, Biden took to Twitter to state that Turkey should stay out of the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict. While Trump has been accused of turning a blind eye to Turkey's allegedly expansionist behaviour during his presidency, this would likely come to a halt if he were to lose next month. 

The Trump 'clone'

Some of his supporters say that a Biden presidency appeals to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. But the truth is that a Biden victory will be a disaster for the Conservative leader.

A Biden victory will be a disaster for Boris Johnson

He desperately needs a second Trump term because the US president gives such weight to Johnson's own political project of populist nationalism and contempt for conventional norms and behaviour. With Trump gone, Johnson will look isolated as the only major figure in Western liberal democracies set on challenging international norms. 

And contempt for international law is alive and well inside the Johnson camp, as demonstrated by last night’s House of Commons vote where the Conservative Party passed the Internal Market Bill, which aims to override parts of its Brexit agreement with the EU in contravention with international law.

Crucially, Biden has made little secret of his disdain of Johnson. He has reportedly described Johnson as a clone of Trump. "You're going to see people saying: 'My God, Boris Johnson, who is kind of a physical and emotional clone of the president, is able to win’," the Democratic challenger told an audience in San Francisco as Johnson swept the general election last December. 

Biden is not a fan of Brexit. "We’d have preferred a different outcome," he said the day after the referendum, before criticising the "reactionary politicians and demagogues peddling xenophobia, nationalism and isolationism". And he has issued stern warnings to Britain about the consequences for peace in Northern Ireland if Britain breaks from the Good Friday Agreement. "We can't allow the Good Friday Agreement to become a casualty of Brexit," he said earlier this month. 

The Brexit factor

The fact is that Britain’s prospect of a rapid and favourable trade deal with the United States, so important for the success of Johnson’s Brexit, recedes beneath the horizon if Biden wins on 3 November. 

For the last few years Johnson and Trump have fought a common crusade against liberal democracy, using lies and falsehood to fight their battles

I guess that Johnson does feel reservations about Trump. After all it’s only a few years since he projected himself as a liberal cosmopolitan leader, as opposed to the nationalist leader he has become today. 

Much water has passed under the bridge since then. Regular readers of this column will know that Johnson is merely the public face of the troika which governs Britain. The other two members of the troika, Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove, are in effect manifestations of press baron Rupert Murdoch - who has been Trump’s closest media ally since his victory in the presidential election of 2016.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (R) greets US President Donald Trump upon arrival for the NATO summit at the Grove hotel in Watford, northeast of London on December 4, 2019.
Boris Johnson greets US President Donald Trump upon arrival at the Nato summit in Watford, on 4 December 2019 (AFP)

Gove even flew across the Atlantic to interview Trump in the Whitehouse in 2017, with Murdoch reportedly in the room. Furthermore, there are authoritative reports of Johnson’s own sympathy with Trump and his politics. 

In a recent interview with the Times, former British ambassador to the US, Kim Darroch, said he observed how "fascinated" Johnson seemed by Trump and his use of language: "The limited vocabulary, the simplicity of the messaging, the disdain for political correctness, the sometimes incendiary imagery, and the at best intermittent relationship with facts and the truth."

For Trump read Johnson. For Johnson read Trump.

A common crusade

This should come as no surprise. Again and again, Britain and the US have been driven by the same global currents.

Gulf states will be among the biggest losers if Trump is defeated this fall
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In the 1940s, Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt led the free world against fascist dictatorship. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher fought a common battle against Soviet tyranny. 

For the last few years Johnson and Trump have fought a common crusade against liberal democracy, using lies and falsehood to fight their battles. No wonder that the likes of Johnson, MBS and Putin so desperately want Trump to win.

Last night’s spectacle was not a debate. It was a slugging match which brought American democracy into disrepute. But Trump is so heavily behind in the polls that he needed a knockout in order to secure victory in the contest. He didn’t get it. His failure to deliver a killer blow was a savage disappointment to his own supporters in the United States. But it will also have unsettled dictators and populists around the world. 

Today, MBS, MBZ, Modi, Netanyahu, Putin and Johnson will sense that Trump’s setback last night means their own grip on power may be ebbing away too.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye

Peter Oborne
Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He also was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.