Free from fear or favour
No tracking. No cookies

‘Trump’s Second Presidential Run and the Francis Scott Key Bridge Collapse Have a Lot In Common’

Baltimore’s Francis Scott Bridge collapsed after one part of the structure was hit by a ship. The disaster is a perfect metaphor for the crisis Europe may face if Trump is re-elected, writes Alexandra Hall

The fallen Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore on 31 March 2024. Photo: Mike Pesoli/AP/Alamy

Don’t miss a story

Many of us will have seen the horrifying footage of the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore harbour last week, after a huge container ship, the Dali, rammed into one of its supporting pillars, apparently after losing power on board.  

One of the most shocking aspects of the disaster, in which six construction workers lost their lives, was how quickly most of the bridge fell, even though only one element of the structure suffered a direct impact. It was a reminder that even the sturdiest-looking construction has its weak points.  

The disaster was a perfect metaphor for the kind of crisis we may be facing in Europe if Donald Trump is re-elected as US President in November.

He is the large container ship threatening to ram into the foundation of European security established after the Second World War – the NATO alliance. Trump was reportedly only narrowly dissuaded from pulling out of NATO during his first term in office. During the current presidential campaign, he has again hinted at his unhappiness with the organisation – and raised doubts about whether he would be willing to come to the defence of those members who, in his view, do not contribute enough to its funding.  

President Donald Trump with Vladimir Putin at the 2019 G20 Japan Summit. Photo: Shealah Craighead/UPI

Recognising the danger a second Trump presidency may present to NATO, the usually divided US Congress came together in late 2023 to pass legislation preventing any president from withdrawing the United States from NATO without the approval of the Senate or an Act of Congress.   

But the damage may already have been done.

Trump does not actually need to withdraw the US from NATO to cause it fundamental harm. Through his words alone, he has already weakened the alliance by undermining its very cornerstone – the notion that an attack on one is an attack on all – represented by the Article V commitment that all members will come to the aid of any country which is under attack. 

NATO, which depends on the US for most of its funding and the vast majority of its military capability, is nothing without US leadership.  

Does American Reluctance to Aid Ukraine Foreshadow a New Isolationism?

If recent polls show Americans are increasingly reluctant to provide military aid to Ukraine, how willing would it be to defend NATO allies from a Russian attack?

Perhaps Trump does not mean it in practice. Perhaps, faced with a real invasion of a NATO member, Trump will command the US military into action. But perhaps not.

In this uncertain environment, Vladimir Putin might be tempted to test the limits, not just by doubling-down on his aggression against Ukraine and neighbouring states such as Georgia and Moldova, but even by moving against a vulnerable NATO member such as one of the Baltic countries. Would Trump come to the aid of Estonia, Lithuania or Latvia? I’d like to believe so, especially since NATO has deliberately stationed multinational forces in each country, as well as Poland, to act as a tripwire. But I am no longer so sure – and it is precisely this element of doubt which creates risk.    

Perhaps an even stronger metaphor arising from the bridge disaster concerns the vulnerability of Western democracies to critical collapse. Speaking about why the bridge fell down, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said that “a bridge like this one, completed in the 1970s, was simply not made to withstand a direct impact on a critical support pier from a vessel that weighs about 200 million pounds – orders of magnitude bigger than cargo ships that were in service in that region at the time that the bridge was first built”. 

By the same token, most Western democratic systems were designed in a different era and may not forever be able to withstand today’s assaults upon them – whether by hostile foreign actors seeking to sow chaos through spreading misinformation or buying influence through corrupt means, or by homegrown populist leaders, stoking up divisive cultural wars, or undermining vital institutions, such as an independent judiciary, strong media, and neutral civil service, for their own nefarious ends.  

The Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore in 2021. Photo: Jeffrey Kahan/Alamy

Ultimately, democracy, like the NATO alliance, relies upon trust – in NATO’s case, that every member will uphold its commitment to come to each other’s rescue in their moment of need; in democracy’s case, that leaders will not exploit loopholes in their systems, but always act with integrity, and adhere not just to the letter of the law, but its spirit also.

Public trust is eroded, and our entire democratic system weakened, when any one party or faction starts to chip away at those unwritten norms and values.  

Engineers are already discussing how to rebuild the Francis Scott Key bridge so that if one part of it ever again suffers major damage, it will not trigger the collapse of its entire span. They call this “building redundancy” – the practice of adding  back-up systems or components to ensure that a system or structure can continue to operate in the event of a failure. This will also include installing stronger barriers around each pillar to buffer ships (called ‘dolphins’) away from ramming into them in the first place.  

We need to do the same both for NATO and our democracies.   


Receive the monthly Byline Times newspaper and help to support fearless, independent journalism that breaks stories, shapes the agenda and holds power to account.

We’re not funded by a billionaire oligarch or an offshore hedge-fund. We rely on our readers to fund our journalism. If you like what we do, please subscribe.

NATO needs to build more redundancy into its system, with every member state increasing their own military capabilities and military contributions to the alliance so that it is not so dependent on America.  

Western democracies need to build redundancy by building more guardrails into their systems, including through tightening their financial controls, making stronger efforts to combat disinformation and the misuse of artificial intelligence, protecting free speech and civic activism, and shoring up the independence of the media, judiciary, and civil service.  

In the UK’s case, we also need to install our own version of dolphins – by adopting a written constitution, with much stronger guidelines on ethical behaviour in office, and stronger penalties for transgressions, as a way to deter such violations in the first place.   

Alexandra Hall writes an exclusive column, ‘An Englishwoman Abroad’, for the monthly Byline Times print edition. Subscribe now

Subscribers Get More from alex

Alexandra Hall Hall also writes a regular An Englishwoman Abroad column, exclusive to the print edition of Byline Times. So for more from her…

This article was filed under
, , , , , ,