Trump Made My Worst-Case Predictions for 2020 Look Tame

The president’s savior complex was central to my annual list of geopolitical forecasts

In September 1996, the Taliban captured the Afghan capital of Kabul. In a strike of unexpected speed, thousands of fighters streamed into the ancient, mountain-ringed city aboard Toyota Hilux pickups. One group of them knocked at the gate of a well-known United Nations compound housing Mohammed Najibullah, the much-hated former Afghan president. The men killed Najibullah, fulfilling a promise the Taliban had made years ago, and dragged his body through the streets. Then they hung it from a traffic pole outside the presidential palace.

Americans may have only just avoided a Najibullah moment last week when a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol: At least one rioter threatened to kill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Two men carried zip-tie handcuffs, and the FBI is currently investigating whether there were plans to take members of Congress hostage. One video shows a group of rioters chanting, “Hang Mike Pence.” No one knows whether the rioters would have actually carried out the threats if they came face to face with the vice president or any members of Congress. But the severity of the attack, in which rioters murdered a police officer by striking him with a fire extinguisher, battered others with bats, furniture, and other objects, and threw yet another down a flight of stairs, suggests that Pence and Pelosi may have indeed been in danger.

The nightmarish conclusion to the 2020 election — resembling some of modern history’s most harrowing attacks on power — was the #1 prediction in my annual list of geopolitical forecasts last January. No one, including me, foresaw precisely this endnote to the long campaign. But profound distrust in both political parties all but guaranteed a tense election aftermath, with accusations of vote-rigging and a desperate attempt by Trump, a self-styled savior, to hang on to power by almost any means. Sure enough, we saw just that.

This was the eighth year of these forecasts, and the first in which I was six for six. As a basis of the predictions, I follow 15 common-sense rules of geopolitics, general principles for divining the direction of big events. (Here are the first 14 plus the 15th.) Next week, we will publish the 2021 forecasts, pegged to President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, a ceremony that marks the end of one era and the beginning (or resumption) of another.

1. The 2020 election would be a nightmare

Three rules governed my first forecast about post-election upheaval. They began with the Injustice Rule, which explains what happens when a critical mass of people possess a gargantuan, primordial grievance, feel they cannot get a fair shake, and sense their children won’t fare better than they have. When that occurs, such people can rise in revolt. We have seen this play out again and again — in the Middle East, for example, and in the former Soviet Union. Next was the True Believer Rule, which explains how reality can be bent when events include a messianic leader in whom followers vest allegiance and resemble a crusade. Finally, there was the Staying in Power Rule, an axiom that explains the base desire of every office-holder on the planet — in this case, Trump — to hold onto their position no matter what.

Naturally I — like every other person attempting to divine the year ahead — failed to foresee the biggest event of all, which was the pandemic. But what I did observe as a dominant factor at the start of 2020 was the stark isolation in which the U.S. had found itself after three years of Trump’s attacks on allies, and his cozying up to enemies and rivals.

2. Relationships with our allies would continue to fracture

That isolation was at the core of the second forecast, which was that other nations would more intensely distance themselves from the U.S. So it was. As the year ended, Europe signed an important trade deal with China, a stark sign of the tattered state of the transatlantic alliance, given that it came three weeks before the Trump era was to end, and when status quo Western friendship could resume.

In this forecast, I highlighted the probability that Russia would turn to cyber warfare in another attack on a U.S. election. That weaker countries take shots at a larger hegemon is an established pattern of history — it was the fate of the Hapsburgs, Napoleonic France, and Britain. The Mountain Rule reflects such behavior, explaining that great powers tend to play outside the lanes of geopolitical norms when seeking their objectives, which irritates smaller powers, who then gang up on the hegemon. In doing so, the smaller players are also observing the Injustice Rule — they are forever suffering from conspiracies imagined and real to keep them down and use any instrument at their disposal to strike back. Indeed, it turned out that Moscow had burrowed deep into the U.S. and state governments at multiple levels in what has been called the gravest cyber intrusion in U.S. history.

3. China would become stronger than ever

The third forecast was that, again in keeping with the Mountain Rule, the long U.S.–Chinese contest for global power would reach a new plateau. Specifically, I said the world would split into two distinct commercial zones, one led by each of the current great powers. As the year came to a close, that’s precisely what we saw, with Trump banning technology exports to China’s largest semiconductor manufacturer. One of China’s greatest technological weaknesses is in state-of-the-art semiconductors, which it has largely imported from the United States. China reacted by declaring a new plan to create a self-reliant chip industry.

In his closing weeks as president, Trump fired another shot, this time by delisting 35 Chinese companies on the New York Stock Exchange — a move he hopes will hobble Beijing’s military.

4-5. Autocrats would run wild.

The fourth and fifth predictions warned of a new danger faced by state and corporate leaders around the world. The United States had helped create this new dynamic with the 2019 assassination of Iranian security chief Qassem Soleimani and, at Washington’s behest, Canada’s 2018 arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei.

In August, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny almost died in a poison attack using the nerve agent Novichok, and the finger of blame was pointed at the Russian state spy agency, the FSB. In November, we saw the remote-control assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s premier nuclear scientist, an attack blamed on Israel. In terms of business leaders, there has been no public sign of Alibaba founder Jack Ma, China’s most internationally visible business titan, since October, and no one seems to know where he is.

The dynamic governing assassinations and disappearances is the Caesar Rule, which explains how the most dramatic expressions of power tend to take place in autocratic regimes.

6. Elon Musk would have the best year ever

Finally, I forecast a big year for electric vehicles. For Tesla, the biggest electric vehicle company of all, 2020 was a proving year and prove itself it did, notching its fifth consecutive profitable quarter and growing its share price sevenfold. Moreover, 2020 was the year the “super-battery” took on a new reality, lending validation to forecasts that EVs will soon reach cost parity with gasoline-powered vehicles.

The deciding dynamic was the Big Personality Rule, which says that certain people can alter the outcome of important events by the force of their persona and a tendency to play by their own rules. In this case, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, thus far at least, set his own course against numerous forecasts of his imminent demise and single-handedly forced the entire auto industry to go electric.

Editor at Large, Medium, covering the turbulence all around us, electric vehicles, batteries, social trends. Writing The Mobilist. Ex-Axios, Quartz, WSJ, NYT.

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