President Joe Biden in his inaugural address promised to heal the country and defeat ‘white supremacy,’ yet nativism remains a potent force that can still destabilize the republic
In the annals of the republic’s short history, the storming of the Capitol would probably rank as one of its most egregious episodes. The president of the United States incited a mob, fattened upon a diet of conspiracy theories and social media echo chambers and let them loose on the United States legislature. Donald Trump, it is suggested, subverted US democracy when he urged protesters to ‘fight like hell,’ refused to accept the outcome of the election, and did not agree to a peaceful transition of power. His impeachment and departure would presage, as the argument goes, an era of healing and reasoned debate. In this narrative, Trump is culpable for the coarseness of the public conversation, has given succor to a minority of fanatics, and his political demise will reset America upon a path most Americans find comforting.
Yet this motherhood and apple pie version of US history, if it even ever existed, is not about to return. In his fictional novel American War, Omar El Akkad evocatively depicts the aftermath of a second civil war. His work looks less today like a work of fiction than a prescient telling of an emerging schism. The world’s sole superpower is going through convulsions that threaten the future of the republic. In short, the very values that undergird liberal and democratic America are subject to ferocious disagreement by large swathes of its citizens. Trump, in this argument, is not the cause of America’s malady but a symptom. The problem is greater than one man, it is about the very tenets of what America means and its future as the leader of the ‘free world.’
When Francis Fukuyama opined in the throes of the end of the Cold War that liberal democracy and capitalism were on an inevitable march towards a universal calling, he spoke to the idealism of tens of millions of Americans. With the demise of the Soviet Union, ideological conflict would come to an end as all alternative ideas were rendered redundant. In its place would materialize a post conflict world. At the end of history, Fukuyama opined, there was nothing but boredom. This naivety was captured by Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist who absurdly wrote that any two countries with a McDonalds would never go to war. The ‘golden arches theory of world peace’ as it became known echoed the aspirations of early proponents of liberalism like Emanuel Kant, who framed the idea of ‘perpetual peace’ through liberal trade. It is what Joseph Nye called ‘complex interdependence’ that would render conflict unfathomable. Liberalism would serve to do what humanity had failed to achieve since the beginning of time; tame the worst appetites of human beings. It is what the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, without any hint of irony, called ‘the better angels of our nature’. This guilt free optimism contributed to Bill Clinton’s election victory in 1992. Americans were moved by the assuredness of the young upstart, hailing a new world of free markets and globalization with American power at its center. Known as the ‘Clinton Doctrine,’ capitalism would make democracy irresistible to the world.
Yet this wishful exuberance of the heady post-Cold War era today lays in tatters. Even those that scoffed at such idealism could never have imagined that democracy would not only be subject to retreat in, say Hungary or Poland, but also severely tested at home. The ‘city on the hill’ today sits in a haze of tear gas and troop deployment, but also of an intellectual fault-line that is about to intensify. Yet many Americans still do not get it. Trump may have retreated with disgrace to Mar-a-Lago, but Trumpism will continue for years to come. Moreover, Trump did not create the imperatives of Trumpism, but rather he gave them leadership, albeit for cynical personal ends; a faction that had long been ignored by Washington’s collective institutional and civil society machinery.
This chasm that has opened up threatens to destabilise the core of the liberal world order. It is the growing resentment in largely white, blue collar America towards the direction of the country, in domestic composition and foreign policy. This nativism, for want of a better label, started as a series of mini cultural resentments during the 2000’s but has ballooned into a broader world-view that threatens the established assumptions the two political parties have hitherto lived by and nurtured since 1945. Certainly, to append white to this nativism would not be improper; as the images from the storming of the Capitol showed, the movement is almost exclusively a racial enterprise. However, it would be wrong to dismiss it as solely an enterprise of racism as some on the progressive wing of the Democrats have already attempted. The fault lines run deeper and reflect a broadly held view that the system has not served them, has undermined their cultural identities, made them poorer and lied to them about foreign wars. It has adopted a number of positions, some untenable to the rational mind but others based on a visceral and sound belief that their lifestyles have declined, particularly since the financial crisis of 2008.
74 million Americans voted for Donald Trump (that’s 47% of all voters), this is, after witnessing the past four years of xenophobia, the erosion of truth and the dysfunction of the administration. He received the second largest vote share of any US presidential candidate, after Joe Biden. The uncomfortable truth is that if it was not for the failure to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting economic downturn, Trump would most definitely be serving a second term. These difficult thoughts trouble liberal America. On 5 November, the New York Times printed an op-ed by Roxanne Gay with the headline ‘This is America’, only a day later for it to be changed to ‘I am Shattered, but Ready to Fight.’ Trump tapped into a strand of America hitherto ignored by politics, the dispossessed – casualties of a project to sustain American power abroad who became resentful of changes at home. A recent Axios poll suggested 64% of Republican’s said they supported Trump’s recent behavior and 57% said they wanted Trump to be the 2024 candidate.
Many of these voters have experienced real-wage stagnation over the past 40 years, the erosion of industrial jobs and dislocation of their communities during a period of unprecedented American prosperity and power. For US blue collar workers, offshoring and global supply chains have kept wages in abeyance. The economic crisis of 2008 served to consolidate this decline. The economic disparities felt by these Americans contributed to a deep sense of unfairness between those in the old rust belt states and the growing service economies. A Stanford Center study confirmed that over the past 30 years, wage inequality has increased substantially, ‘now approaching the extreme level that prevailed prior to the Great Depression.’ The historian Lisa McGirr surmises, in the last 40 years ‘[e]conomic crisis and the browning of America opened new avenues for calculating politicians to exploit white cultural resentments for political gain.’
These economic challenges are one of a series of resentments that inform this resurgent nativism. Great swathes of conservative America today object to what they call an imposition of a cultural identity, the policing of speech and the universalization of social mores that they refuse to accept. They seethe at the manner non-metropolitan America is traduced in the mainstream media, a depiction of hillbillies and bible-bashing simpletons. As the gulf intensifies, disparate issues and causes are added to what can now be described as an alternative worldview. Face masks, vaccines and social distancing have been added. A public health response badly handled by the Trump administration has been hampered by denialists convinced that either the virus did not exist, or it has been utilized by dark forces to amass enormous federal government power.
Within this combustible mix is what has now become known as the era of ‘alternative facts’. Liberals rail against conspiracy theories and COVID deniers and how truth no longer matters. President Biden vowed to ‘defeat the lies’ in his inaugural address. Yet they forget, the art of political lying did not begin with Donald Trump. When Barack Obama ‘retreated’ from Afghanistan in 2014, the conceit was lost in the optics of drawdown. No such withdrawal took place as thousands of troops remained in the country, fighting what he was told by senior officials for years was an ‘unwinnable war’ “Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Bob Crowley, an Army colonel who served as a senior counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military commanders in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers. “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.” John Sopko, the head of the federal agency that conducted the interviews, acknowledged that the documents show “the American people have constantly been lied to.” And there was not a hint of irony when former Secretary of State Colin Powell told Fareed Zakaria last week that Trump had insidiously made lying acceptable. Yet in 2003 it was one Powell who told “lie after lie” to the UN security council, knowing that he was selling faulty intelligence to prosecute a war. In Washington, lying is acceptable if it is done with an air of sophistry.
But it’s in foreign policy and international trade where one observes some clarity in an otherwise confused movement. Millions of American’s have become tired of un-winnable and never-ending wars. The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq dented the country’s moral standing in the world but also undermined confidence amongst ordinary people about the efficacy of sustaining American power. Since 1945 and more energetically since 1991, the US has embarked upon a strategy of expanding and maintaining the liberal world order. America became, what John Ikenberry calls the ‘liberal leviathan’, a play on the Hobbesian notion that without enormous centralized power, order could not be achieved. America strode the world, as John Mearsheimer astutely recognizes, to establish itself as the uncontested hegemon and prevent the rise of any peer competitor. Robert Kagan correctly points out that the world America made did not come by chance, yet Americans have grown tired of carrying the burdens of this order. He surmises that unless Washington addresses this intellectual deficit, American power will decline leaving a vacuum that will be filled by chaos and then eventually, alternative powers, chiefly a confident and assertive China.
On trade, those that supported Trump have grown weary of globalisation. President Biden’s insistence that he will not prioritise trade agreements, reflects a recognition that tens of millions of Americans, beyond Trump’s support base, no longer see free trade as a positive thing. This reticence stems from a belief, articulated by the Trump administration, that the world has taken America for granted for too long. This is a superpower that no longer believes in the values that have shouldered its domestic and foreign policy since the early twentieth century.
Donald Trump of course was not the messiah. But he cynically spoke the language of the dispossessed, giving a nod here, a dog-whistle there to reprehensible views. His strategy was to maintain the base for electoral purposes and this he achieved. More than 12 million additional Americans voted for Trump, believing he was the only man that stood in the way of the swamp. Yet he positively bathed in the cesspit he was once elected to drain. The problem for America is not Trump; it’s America. Those that voted for a continuation of the Trump presidency will not disappear because a ‘better angel’ now occupies the White House. This crisis is about to intensify. There are no longer reasonable opinions, on either side, or ways to foster greater civil discourse. Everyone has their own version of truth.
America is in crisis. As Biden today promises healing and seeks to mend the country, he knows full well that he is going to govern a country that disagrees on the fundamentals that undergird the republic. A superpower that no longer believes in itself is a superpower in decline. This hemorrhaging of cohesive American opinion is not about to be redressed, with tens of millions declining to accept the legitimacy of the new president. The challenges to America remain immense, at home and abroad, and the next four years may well see these ruptures intensify. It was HL Mencken in 1920 in the Baltimore Sun who said “As democracy is perfected, the office [of president] represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move towards a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” Certainly America has adequately reached this prediction. Yet the very people that brought to power this ‘moronity’ may one day elect to office an intelligent man with demagogic ambitions. And that day looks more likely than ever before.