This is the first of a two-part series. This week’s column will deal with how Donald Trump has changed American society and where the American political system is today as it turns the page on the Trump presidency. Next week I will write about how President Biden will need to respond to these issues and the impact that his response will have on Canada.
America has been changed forever over the past four years. The Trump presidency has brought forward and legitimized elements of American society that have always been there. The American state was founded on a violent revolution and about a hundred years later was tested by a violent insurrection. It was supported for many years by the exploitation of enslaved people. Anti-immigration and general xenophobia, religious intolerance, and an urban-rural divide have always had a role in American society. The focus on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” emphasized individualism over collective concern for others.
Canadians should not be feeling smug at this point, because all these elements have played a role in Canadian history as well, but as good Canadians we have kept them under wraps a bit better.
These elements of American society were not invented by Donald Trump, but he has mined them and brought them to the surface. Armed groups across the country have organized to take up the cause of their president. For Trump’s supporters, this is their last chance to protect American society from the wretched hordes that are pounding at the gate. These violent groups operated on the fringe of American society for many years, but Trump has given them the encouragement and legitimacy that they needed to move into the mainstream and recruit large numbers of followers. These groups are clearly a challenge to American society, but in the final analysis, the armed might of the American state will win out over these forces, although there will likely a significant cost measured in terms of both lives and dollars.
It will be more difficult to turn back the clock on other aspects of the Trump legacy.
Trump has shown no leadership in the face of the pandemic. His administration has overseen the development of vaccines in record time, and deserves great credit for that. However, he has been counter-productive in attempting to contain the virus while the vaccines were being developed.
In Trump World, the dominance of individual rights takes precedence over being required to wear a mask or social distance even if the result has a major impact on the health of others. When criticized for holding superspreader rallies, the response was that the First Amendment protected free speech—conveniently overlooking the fact that just because something is legal does not make it the wisest course of action.
Trump has increased the polarization in the political system. This was already happening, but Trump has moved it forward by leaps and bounds. Politics has always been about a clash of values involving arguments over the efficacy of policies. When done properly, this is a positive way of discussing a problem and arriving at the best course of action.
Trump has changed the nature of public discourse. Trump’s world does not involve discussions of policies. His opponents are dismissed as “short” or “weak” or, if they are women, “nasty.” He doesn’t attack the policy views of opponents— instead he dismisses them as having no legitimate right to run for office. Barrack Obama was born in Kenya; Hillary Clinton should be locked up. This is a qualitatively different argument from saying that my policies are better than my opponent’s. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their book, How Democracies Die, argued that one step in the death of democracies is promoting the idea that your opponents have no legitimate right to participate in the political system. This is very different from saying that your opponents’ policies are unwise. Questioning your opponents’ legitimacy is much easier than addressing their policies, especially when you don’t have any policies of your own.
However, there is a more serious problem that Trump has dug up. Western societies generally, including the United States and Canada, are facing significant and growing levels of economic inequality. The large middle class is watching the rich “one-percenters” get richer, while they haven’t had a real pay increase in decades, and their children are trying to make their way in the gig economy—minus job security or benefits. Trump did not create this inequality, but he has done nothing to redress it.
Trump, if you believe his accounts, is a member of the one-percenters, but he has simplistic solutions to the problems facing the middle class that tie nicely into the xenophobia mentioned above: the culprits are the Chinese with their cheap products, and the Mexicans with their cheap labour.
The middle class has done everything they were supposed to do to live the American dream—yet still ended up losing their previously-secure, well-paying factory jobs. Of course, it’s more likely that they lost their job to a robot rather than to someone from China or Mexico, but that’s just an inconvenient truth.
This group provides the core of Trump’s support. They have well-founded grievances about the increasing inequality in society, and no one except Trump really listened to them. Trump was correct in saying that this group would continue to support him if he shot someone in public or bragged about grabbing women’s genitals. They simply have no place else to go. Other political leaders have ignored them, but they have found their voice with Trump. Dealing with this inequality will be one of the great challenges facing political leaders going forward.
This is American society of 2021. Trump did not create these discontented threads in American society, but he did figure out how to weave them together for his own advantage. This is the world faced by the new president. Next week, I will look at Biden’s likely approach to these issues and the impact that those initiatives will have on Canada. ◆
David Siegel is Emeritus Professor of Political Science, Brock University.