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The struggle for America’s soul

Donald Trump was a symptom rather than the cause of the nation’s discontents and the forces he has unlocked are here to stay.

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Donald Trump will soon be gone from the Oval Office. His declarations of voting fraud can best be viewed as the latest episode in a decades-long reality show. By declaring he will not accept defeat he may hope to negotiate protection against charges of criminal business dealings when he loses presidential immunity from prosecution. At the same time, his accusations fashion the identity as a wronged leader he will assume when he departs. Sowing chaos and pursuing his grievances from his rumoured “Trump TV” channel while basking in the unwavering adoration of tens of millions of Americans and making some serious money is a prospect he will find hard to resist.

One way or another Trump will surely go, but his influence will remain. His performance in the presidential election demonstrates that when he came to power in 2016, it was not – as the world wanted to believe – an aberrant, one-off blip. Joe Biden achieved more votes than any candidate in American electoral history – 75 million counted at time of writing. But more than 71 million Americans (nine million more than in 2016) voted for Trump in full knowledge of the kind of president he would be in a second term. The clear message is that there is no way back to a pre-Trump order. Rather than ending in a restoration of the liberal ancien régime, the election marks the next phase of a chronic American legitimation crisis.

Politics itself has changed. Early 21st-century political conflict is more value-based than it is economic in origin. The contest between free-market capitalism and government economic intervention that occupied much of the last century was about means not ends. Even when it became a geopolitical rivalry between opposing systems of government, as in the Cold War, each side claimed to be dedicated to improved material well-being for all of humankind. In practice, their objectives were often not much more than window-dressing for power struggles, but they testified to a shared body of values. Antagonistic political systems invoked common standards of human progress.

Nowadays political divisions are more often between rival versions of what constitutes progress. Nowhere is this more so than in the US, where clashes over the sanctity of human life, sexuality and what it means to be American are conflicts between fundamentally divergent values. Economic growth and job security matter, sometimes greatly, and class antagonisms have not disappeared. But politics has become a struggle for the American soul, an essentially religious conflict that cannot be resolved.

Many liberals acknowledge their values are in retreat. Almost always, they see this as the result of an eruption of atavistic passions. The recent rise of a hyperbolic liberalism that curbs traditional freedoms and aims to deconstruct inherited identities is irrelevant. How could liberals be complicit in the reversal of progress when they themselves embody it? Only a relapse into past barbarism can explain such irrationality.

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There has been much empty chatter about the rise of American fascism. Trump has a dictatorial personal manner and he is perfectly ready to incite violence when it suits him. He has subverted American institutions whenever they curbed his power. That does not mean the US risked a rerun of interwar dictatorship. The crisis of American legitimacy belongs in the American present, not the European past.

In the run-up to the election, discontent spilled into the streets in peaceful protests, sparked by the killing of George Floyd on 25 May, and rapidly escalated into urban warfare. Well before then, the mainstream media had become an instrument of agitprop, and Big Tech an unaccountable force in political warfare. Universities had become Salem-style sites of soul-cleansing, and political education was routinely enforced in many businesses. The US was already ceasing to be a liberal democracy in a historically familiar sense. Trump accelerated this process. By identifying himself with opposition to the “woke” movement, he strengthened it, and when (among many similar provocations) he told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by”, he was wilfully inflaming the forces of white nationalism. But rather than facing a looming fascist coup, the US was becoming chronically ungovernable.

There are clear ideological differences as well. Aside from some of Steve Bannon’s eccentric musings, there was no recognisably fascistic current of thought in the Trump administration. If Trump has anything resembling a coherent world-view it is the inveterate optimism of the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale (who officiated when Trump married Ivana in 1977, and with whom Trump remained close until Peale died in 1993). The lesson Trump learned from Peale is that the world is malleable by positive thinking and the power of dreams; with sufficient self-belief, anything is possible. It is a quintessentially American philosophy.

America’s right-wing militias are driven by a libertarian mythology of natural rights in which government is the enemy, whereas fascism was doctrinally statist. Far-right ideology in the US is a mishmash of Catholic integralism – the theory that law should be based on a traditionalist version of Christian values – with the sub-Nietzschean individualism of Ayn Rand, together with a nativist discourse (shared by many in the mainstream) of the US’s unique redemptive role in history.


Credit: Edmon de Haro

Semi-fictional himself, Trump’s true affinities are with F Scott Fitzgerald’s shape-shifting con man Jay Gatsby and Sinclair Lewis’s mendacious preacher and sexual predator Elmer Gantry. The art of the confidence trickster is in knowing their victims better than they know themselves, and Trump has demonstrated clairvoyant insight into areas of the American psyche that have been ignored or concealed. It may be this uncanny ability, more than anything he has done, that has made him such an irresistible object of horror and fascination.

Visions of the rise of fascism in the US were attempts by liberals to avert their gaze, Dorian Gray-like, from the putrefaction of the society over which they for so long presided. It is an understandable reaction. Brutal and savage racial hatreds, the highest incarceration rate in the world, a uniquely powerful gun lobby, the worst medical provision for the poor of any rich society, a huge profit-driven opioid epidemic, despairing post-industrial wastelands and a pervasive conspiracy culture – all of them pre-dating Trump, some by many years – mock any idea of an Arcadian liberal era cruelly cut short. But denial is not confined to these realities. It includes the weakening legitimacy of the US’s judicial institutions, and thereby of the American regime itself.

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Liberal legalism must be one of the most self-defeating ideologies ever to capture a large state. Elaborated by John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin in the Sixties and Seventies, it aimed to construct a regime of rights that would be insulated from the accidents of politics. The predictable result has been the politicisation of law. Rights do not dovetail into a harmonious system that judges can neutrally interpret. They often conflict with one another, and choices have to be made. Rule by judges is politics by other means and, when it concerns the demands of supposed fundamental rights, politics of a peculiarly radical kind.

There is a right-wing version of liberal legalism, promoted by Friedrich Hayek and his disciples, that aims to secure the freedoms of unrestrained capitalism as constitutional rights. There is also an anti-liberal version, embodied in Amy Coney Barrett, who recently succeeded the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the US Supreme Court. Under the guise of a “textualist” reading of the Constitution – one that focuses on how its authors understood the meaning of the words they used when it was originally framed – Barrett will now promote a highly specific set of values in regard to abortion, same-sex marriage and other controversial questions. Whatever its complexion, the legalist project has the same end-result. As contested issues are removed from politics, political warfare breaks out throughout society.

When one side wins in a value-conflict that has become a contest between fundamental rights, the other loses everything. Inevitably, the judiciary becomes the prize target in a struggle for power. Senate confirmation of Barrett as a Supreme Court judge shows this logic at work. Despite Biden’s arrival in the White House, many of the liberal advances of the past 30 years could be undone.

With a conservative majority in the Court, it is not only choice in abortion and same-sex marriage that is threatened. Obamacare could be ruled unconstitutional. There is an epic kind of madness in a system in which healthcare provision during a pandemic can be decided by reference to disputed interpretations of centuries-old documents. Some suggested Biden should respond by packing the Court with progressives. But that assumed control of the Senate by the Democrats, which they will not have, and if Biden did somehow stack the Court, the reaction on the streets could be explosive. The new administration will be locked out of power across a wide range of issues.

Trump did more than destroy two American political dynasties – the Bushes and the Clintons – he altered the American party system irreversibly. Having conquered the GOP, he demolished its ruling ideology, “fusionism” – the belief that libertarian economics and cultural conservatism can be combined. Trump grasped that the two ideologies had become antagonists. If large numbers of Americans reject hyper- liberalism because it threatens their way of life, they resist hyper-globalisation for the same reason.

Trump’s instinct has been reinforced by events. This election was a major setback for identity politics. According to exit polls, Trump won larger percentages among black, Asian-American and Latinx voters than he did in 2016. Demands that the police be defunded may not have been well received by minorities whose businesses were torched in riots. As the US becomes less white, it may also be becoming more conservative – an opportunity Republican strategists will not ignore. Leading Republicans have been silent or equivocal regarding Trump’s allegations of voting fraud, and some must already have begun positioning themselves for the presidential election of 2024. A narrow defeat may well be their preferred option at this point. It cannot be long before they decide to distance themselves from Trump, even as they accept that their future lies in some variation on Trumpism.

There is no pre-Trump normalcy to which the Democrats can revert either. The low-key decency Biden projected during the campaign won over some of the working-class voters lost in 2016, but it will alienate the party’s bourgeois militants. If Kamala Harris one day becomes president, she too will be attacked for being insufficiently progressive. This is not to say the administration will be forced to swing to the far left. More likely, it will struggle to reconcile the demands of its members with those of voters. It may shrink from attempting to push through environmental policies that threaten jobs in communities reliant on fossil fuel industries. There has been talk of a Green New Deal as a great job-creator but that would require a vast stimulus programme, which Biden will be unable to get through Congress. All such visions depended on a landslide victory that has not materialised.

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The key feature of the Biden administration will be how little difference it makes. In domestic politics, the culture wars will fester on. In international relations, much of Trump’s agenda will be continued. The shift will be mostly in style, not substance.

For the most part Biden’s economic and foreign policies will not depart radically from Trump’s. The “Washington consensus” on free-market globalisation has disappeared. The goal will be to reflate the American economy by “buying America”. Like Trump’s, Biden’s administration will be an experiment in post- globalisation economics.

As a proxy for military rivalry, trade friction with China will be persistent; but, like Trump, Biden will aim to avoid any breakdown in relations. The stakes are too high to stumble into outright confrontation, though that might happen if Taiwan comes under imminent threat. It is unclear if Biden will pursue Trump’s rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world – Trump’s one big foreign policy success. Whether there will be an effort to revive liberal interventionism – in practice, a succession of ruinous wars – remains to be seen.

Biden will aim to repair transatlantic institutions, particularly Nato. If the US rejoins the World Health Organisation and the Paris accords, there will be enhanced opportunities on climate change. But tensions will remain. American opposition to the German-Russian gas pipeline is bipartisan, as is suspicion of Germany’s timorous attitude to China, which many suspect is based on commercial calculation. Sulking Remainers delight in forecasting strained relations between Biden’s US and post-Brexit Britain. But US-UK relations will be based on cold assessments of national interest, as they always have been. (There is no obvious need for a trade deal: Britain has a large trade surplus with the US.) There will be deep ongoing cooperation between the two countries in any realistic scenario.

Further into the future, American and European values look likely to drift apart. For some American liberals, the beheading by an Islamist of a teacher in France is not an intolerable assault on freedom of expression, as Emmanuel Macron accurately described it. Instead it demonstrates the failure of the French model of integration. The implicit message is that American multiculturalism should be adopted in Europe and presumably everywhere else. (Intriguingly, this seems to be the view of liberals who believe the US is incorrigibly racist.) But no one beyond America’s shores any longer sees the US as a global model. How can American values be universal when Americans are at war over what these values might be? If American universalism once provoked angry resentment, today it evokes derisive laughter.

Even so, the US will remain the single most powerful state for decades to come. A unipolar global order under Chinese auspices is extremely unlikely. China may be recovering from the pandemic faster than any Western country, but it cannot keep up its previous pace of growth. The population is rapidly ageing, while the environmental costs of economic expansion have been enormous. Xi Jinping may be tilting towards abandoning the goal of integrating China into global markets in favour of building a neo-Maoist autarchy. But since the country has yet to graduate from an export-led to a consumption-based economy, it is still dependent on the West. China’s wolfish diplomacy has mobilised a powerful group of states – the US, India, Japan, the UK, Australia and others – against it. The US remains the most fertile ground for technological innovation anywhere. For all the deterministic predictions of inevitable Chinese supremacy, American anarchy will prove more creative than Xi’s suffocating totalitarianism.

It is fair to say that mainstream media outlets systematically underestimated support for Trump, as did many of the polls. The repeated debacle of the polls may be partly due to unconscious bias in the pollsters. Deploying his strange clairvoyance, Trump connected with voters the polls did not know existed. What did the con man grasp that the pollsters missed?

Most of those engaged in professional polling think of human action in terms of rational choices. From their point of view, it can only be a failure to understand their own interests that has drawn the ignorant masses to Trump. But human beings frame their view of their interests in light of the kind of life they consider meaningful and worth living, and many people have ideas about the good life quite different from those of liberal rationalists. For some, the loss of a particular type of community – a mining town destined for closure, for example – is not just an economic danger but a basic threat to their well-being. It is hard for pollsters, nearly all of whom are highly mobile professionals, to comprehend this frame of mind.

An invincible faith in its superior rationality is the fatal conceit of the progressive mind. Never doubting that they understand their fellow citizens, progressive thinkers see no need to learn from them. As a result, they are forever repeating the same mistakes. That is why they are so often baffled and dismayed by the course of events. How could votes for Trump be higher now than they have ever been? Best not think of his successors, who will soon be campaigning to carry on where he left off. 

John Gray is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is Seven Types of Atheism (Allen Lane)

This article appears in the 13 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, America after Trump