In the week since the election of Donald Trump, the dividing lines for future conflicts both domestic and global are becoming unabashedly acute. Pro-Trump America has outwardly expressed a visceral discontent with the growing inequality caused by globalization, but also a sharp rebuke of the cultural ethos of the liberal international order. An order that many of them presumed benefited “the other” at the cost of their own prosperity. The fact is that the voting bloc that put a Trump victory over the edge were a mix of the working class, college-educated whites, and folks making over $70,000 a year.
Clearly, most Trump supporters were not derelicts or vapid people dispossessed of their livelihoods, but dispossessed from a state of affairs within the country that they believed overlooked and discounted their voice. In a sense, the world was getting smaller too quickly and most people felt as though they were unsure how to secure a socio-economic status that has always been assured by society’s impetus that hard work will translate into materialistic success. In an increasingly inter-connected world, the definition of success became incurred with vagaries due to the winner-take-all culture set within our political and financial institutions. People began to lose sight of economic realities due to a rapidly competitive jobs market.
It is quite likely that Trump’s delicately crafted campaign sloganeering resonated so well with so many people in part due to residual frustration with the Great Recession of 2008. The financial crisis upended the old order of economic mobility and job security for the middle classes and has left many people without the tools necessary to compete in the new economic order. Not only did this create an individual sense of vulnerability, but facilitated a collective feeling of national instability. Many people took notice that the prime drivers of the recession were never held accountable. The banking elite went to the government to use the American taxpayer as a leveraged repository to bail them out of not only their monetary loses, but of moral answerability.
By 2009, we witnessed the birth of the new American populism in the variants of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements. Each grew out of a sense of injustice. Most of the Tea Party eventually folded into the traditional Republican establishment while the occupy movement reoriented itself with the Progressive faction in the Democratic Party with the help of Bernie Sanders. People on both the left and right expressed fear of major corporations garnering more monopolistic power by converging with big government and using middle-class taxpayers to finance their enterprise. As time went on, the movements fizzled but the sense of vulnerability was still palpable many years post-recession. People were told the economy was doing better and stellar jobs reports were a staple fixture of mainstream news outlets. But bellowing under the surface, majority of the American electorate felt under supported and undermined by the Obama Administration. Most were unequipped (and unable) to comprehend a changing America on an unstable and disquieting world stage. Not only did the recession upend an individual sense of job security, but seemed to incur national insecurity due to the perception of America’s diminishing role in the scheme of grand power politics under President Obama.
Donald Trump harnessed the power of this perception on a collective scale. He campaigned on political directives that were crafted to appeal to a range of social groups whom were invariably exposed to financial uncertainties, making sure to not explicitly undermine the politico-economic narratives of the Progressive Left. This group may have distaste for Trump’s salesman pitch on complex political problems (which was heavily laced with racial overtones) but he never embarked on an aggressive attack to destroy Bernie Sanders’ economic platform. Leftist policies were attacked but not decimated by Trump’s campaign rhetoric; it was the Establishment’s disaffection toward hard-working everyday people that Trump was seen as rebuking. This likely helped him to win over a wider scope of people, including left-leaning Independents and non-ideologues.
He won the presidency on the crudest form of populism ever witnessed in modern America. He used a virulent form of nationalism to not only contain popular discontent with our institutions, but packaged it in a way to pit people against one another. He conflated economic insecurity with the problem of illegal immigration and debased minority groups as peddling vagabonds out to destroy the American name. The void and sense of injustice people felt after the recession was filled with animosity toward whomever Trump pointed his malaise towards (China, Mexico, the American Establishment). The most troubling dividing line that was touted by Trump was the class and cultural divisions between Middle America and the “elites.” But in reality it is a fight between the Americans who want to define 21st Century America as a regressive, insular state operating from behind a wall and those who seek to continue to fight for a liberal world order.
This is a systematic fault line that is also being played out in Europe. From Britain pulling out of the European Union (Brexit) to the rise of right-wing nationalist parties in the upcoming elections (2017) in France and Germany, and a December referendum in Italy that may oust the current government the question testing the West is: what is the composite nature of the modern nation-state? Should it be based on ethnic nationalism or constitutional principles of pluralism? Do we settle for the exclusivity of kinship politics or the inclusivity of the global village? Unfortunately, modern democracy is too weak to answer these daunting questions. A Trump presidency cannot unilaterally stop the world from building multilateral institutions that harvest and disperse jobs and resources. Trump may be able to assert to which measure he wants to define American leadership and power in a world increasingly being defined by interconnectivity, but individuals will still have the ability to make bridges over isolationist walls.
Like it or not, we have all entered Trump’s world of dog-eat-dog capitalism manifesting into an unorthodox mix of corporatism and plutocracy. But wasn’t this the election for the little guy against the unbridled elites? Trump may have promised to make America great again and to get people their jobs back, but he never actually provided a coherent plan to revitalize the economy in a way that will benefit Middle America. One thing is for sure, Trump will be the first American president beholden to no ideology, with the ability to practice real politicking in its rawest form both domestically and internationally. This should make us all feel both excited and scared, the emotional dissonance making it easier for us to be controlled by the whims of an unconventional presidency in a disconcerting age. It also makes it easier for the elites, whom will still control all major institutions under the leadership of Trump, to contain popular discontent against the establishment by finessing nationalism as a fitness test for society’s trust in itself.