The Origins of Trumpism and Joe Biden’s Duty Towards American Democracy
Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential elections has been framed again and again as another triumph of American democracy, one akin to that of the Civil War. Barring the controversial nature of these comparisons, Biden’s win in the US elections is undoubtedly a win for American democracy — but only one of the many victories that the nation will have to secure in the coming years if it is to live up to the title ‘Land of the Free’. (After all, a nation is only as free as it is democratic; that is, free to the extent to which its people can determine their conditions of existence).
The truth is that America’s current situation is particularly worrying from a democratic perspective. Since the 2008–09 financial crisis, the nation has had to face its social and political decay with horrifying clarity. The crisis revealed to the American citizenry not only the world’s reliance on the US’s economic resilience but also the true colors and alliances of their political parties. Disgusted with the sight, Americans would seven years later appoint to the White House an erratic, politically inexperienced, and ideologically inarticulate former reality TV star; one who was neither a Democrat nor a Republican but a perfect metaphor for the nation’s discontents and for the disfigurement and decay of its governmental institutions and democratic processes.
But the rise of Trumpism was not only a matter of popular grievances or of the questionable integrity and legitimacy of America’s democratic institutions. It was also a crisis of the business-led model of globalization that the US began to pursue in the second half of the twentieth century. In fact, the demands and constitution of the various hyper-nationalist right-wing groups that have risen in support of Trump are but the product of the tensions that the US has generated within its own borders as the self-appointed steward of global capitalism.
To better appreciate this connection — before moving on to a discussion of Biden’s new role as president of the United States — it is useful to take a step back and recall the economic crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, which put an end to the so-called Golden Age of the Welfare State that characterized the postwar era.
During the three decades that followed WWII, the US had a strong Welfare state and militant labor unions that were able to secure near full employment and significantly improve working conditions and benefits while reducing income inequality among a predominantly white working-class. The US had lived through almost three decades of relatively high public spending, expanded social benefits, and redistributive taxation when its economy took a drastic downturn and forced the nation to rethink its role in the global economy.
The postwar order had allowed developing nations to industrialize and to disrupt the global division of labor by breaking down production into development stages and value-chains that effectively displaced American labor and industry. Unable to maintain its global dominance through manufacturing, the US economy shifted its focus to the export of financial securities and professional services (with New York at the heart of it), which further displaced large segments of the US’s industrial working-class.
By the mid-1980s, the economy had held its ground and the movement toward free trade was once again in full swing — this time with the US as the center of global financial markets. But this also meant that US trade policy no longer prioritized manufacturing sectors but the expansion of the global financial market, meaning that the American industrial working-class now had an increasing number of challenges to face: growing automation and globalization were reducing the size of the manual workforce; unskilled labor was being either outsourced or replaced with a technologically- and computationally-skilled workforce; manufacturing jobs were moving to rural areas in the Midwest; the growth of global connectivity and financial flows was expanding international supply chains and increasing corporate relocation; on top of this, industrial working-class Americans were feeling politically alienated, as if they could no longer rely on the social democratic and socialist left to fight for them (which gave right-wing parties the perfect opportunity to advance their neoliberal vision of globalization).
The late 1980s and early 1990s appeared to be particularly good years for the country: financial flows had regained their momentum and the US had reasserted its dominance in the world economy. Meanwhile, the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union two years later were lauded as giant victories for the US and for its brands of capitalism and liberal democracy. Optimistic visions of globalization, of a more friendly global environment, and of much greater economic and developmental prospects were the norm. Yet, this post-Cold War narrative quickly lost its shimmer once the dust had settled and the social, political, and economic implications of this new capitalist world order became evident. For one, the 1990s had to endure a series of economic shocks and currency and banking crises that produced backlashes within national and international territories, and that further marginalized the American working-class.
An important shift in the attitudes of industrial working-class Americans toward globalization, international relations, and, more generally, foreigners, can be traced back to the aftermath of what is vaguely referred to as the Asian crisis of the late 1990s. The US-organized bailout of the countries that were hit by the Asian crisis meant that countries like Korea were now indebted to the US and would have to supply the latter with cheap imports that would later put out of business significant numbers and sectors of American industry who were simply unable to compete with them. American corporations responded to this by moving production to Asian countries. This shift in production benefitted American capitalists and consumers while further aggravating the already precarious situation of large segments of the American industrial working-class. What the latter had received in return were high levels of de-industrialization in the US and a slashing of good industrial jobs (especially in rural areas).
As a result, common Americans where quickly coming to the realization that the world being produced by the new capitalist order was not only one of increased rates of sales, production, immigration, etc., but also one of rapid and unexpected economic changes favorable only to American capitalists and global corporations. Later on, the introduction of China into the world market economy would put even greater pressure on US industries who could not compete with the low wages, taxes, and environmental, health, and working standards of their new competitors. (All of this would later play an important role in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections).
It is not surprising that the decade ended with a series of anti-globalization movements, and with demands by working-class Americans to be included in globalization and trade negotiations (e.g. at the WTO). Yet, Americans did not seek answers to these problems through a return to the traditional left-wing parties of the postwar era. ‘Socialism’ (as associated with the Eastern bloc and the temporary solutions of the postwar order) had left a bad taste in their mouth, and various social democratic and labor parties had already abandoned their commitment to redistribution and more or less accepted neoliberal tenets. Accordingly, this once-thriving American working-class began to move away from liberal internationalist tenets and toward nationalist and conservative narratives about globalization’s threat to national sovereignty and to traditional ways of living and working.
The military interventions and terrorist attacks of the following Bush era were but a taste of what this conservative nationalism would become and begin to do within its own borders in the following decade.
Before his election, Obama had appeared to many Americans as a sort of light at the end of the long and unstable tunnel that had been the Bush administration. Maybe — just maybe — he was the long-awaited leader who would finally bring back manufacturing jobs and undo the economic and geopolitical mess that the Republican Party had made. But things were no different under Obama.
Obama’s response to the economic collapse of 2008–09 — which would come to be the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression — was to invest large sums of money in bank bailouts and in big American corporations like Chrysler and GM (the US would later play a similar role in the euro crisis of 2010). Meanwhile, large numbers of poor and working-class Americans continued to suffer the consequences of the real estate bust with no end in sight. It is thus not surprising that this led within the American population to a general feeling of mistrust, cynicism, and resentment toward governmental institutions and party politics. After all, all those years of post-democratic, technocratic solutions had proven to only benefit a capitalist elite who would not be challenged but aided by the US government regardless of party alignments. The system really seemed to be rigged against common working-class Americans.
By 2012, the country’s economic recovery was slow but steady, yet most of these gains fell into the hands of banks and big transnational corporations. The government showed no intentions of alleviating the burdens of common Americans or to re-establish a sense of national trust, unity, and coherence. There was no project common to all Americans, only economic policy catered to the needs of Wall Street. Not surprisingly, common Americans were no longer interested in the technocratic and reformist proposals that they had been hearing about since the 90s had brought to light the economic consequences of globalization. Their resentment toward governmental institutions and traditional party politics were about to take a new form, one that would take up the Left’s critiques of inequality and demands for systemic change but condense them into less inclusive and much simpler and more intuitive political proposals.
Thus a new Right began to gain ground; one who in the following elections would make its grievances heard and its resentment palpable; one for whom Hillary Clinton would be too close to Wall Street and Bernie sanders too socialist; one that would proudly wave flags of anti-globalization, anti-government, evangelism, xenophobia, hyper-nationalism, and white-supremacy. This new Right’s solution to decades of social, economic, and cultural displacement was nothing short of a socioeconomic revolution and a return to an imaginary past in which America was…well…great.
What exactly is this past that this new Right was so enamored with? We don’t really know. From the 70s onward the American industrial working-class has taken blow after blow. Before that it had had 30 years of welfare state. Before that they had fought two world wars and endured the Great Depression. Maybe it’s a pre-Civil War order that they ultimately envisioned.
By now it should be clear how it is that Donald Trump managed to win the 2016 presidential elections with a hat. The man was (and continues to be) politically inept and has never had a coherent political project to put forth other than the vague and ideologically illusive claim that he will “Make America Great Again.” In hindsight, his win is not at all surprising. The reality TV star had showed up at the right time and opportunistically presented himself as the much-needed leader who would represent the ‘true’ people of America, dismantle the global economic order so carefully maintained by corrupt previous administrations, and re-stabilize his people’s rapidly changing and highly disordered world by bringing law and order back to American society.
Trump’s advantage was that he was able to capture and unify popular grievances and resentments toward governmental institutions, political parties, and democratic processes. For decades, common Americans had thought that the system was rigged against them and now someone had finally come forth to acknowledge their grievances as if he truly was one of them. Here was a presidential candidate who was finally willing to put America first, to alleviate the burden that America’s international role placed on its working-class citizens, and to act in the interest of dying American industries. All of this while rejecting the social democrats’ liberal cosmopolitanism and maintaining the Right’s appreciation for personal responsibility, wealth, and private property. On top of this, this new leader seemed to share their neo-conservative love for blood and soil, for traditional values, hierarchies, jobs, and traditions — and was willing to fight for the re-establishment of a simpler world unpolluted by the disordering influences of ethnic, sexual, and cultural minorities. In a nutshell, time was ripe, and Trump was ready.
In a manner that is reminiscent of 20th century fascist leaders, Trump offered a politically alienated, materially displaced, and spiritually disoriented people a purified national identity, a sympathetic ear, and a helping hand. But once in power and confronted with the real political and legislative mechanisms of America’s governmental institutions and foreign policy, he found that he could not simply deliver on his promises. But this would neither disenchant his followers nor convince them that their precious leader was politically incompetent; or that even though he was claiming to challenge a global elite and represent the will of the true people of America, he was gutting public spending and putting forth tax reforms and economic policies that were very much in line with the interests of American capitalists. As Robert Kuttner puts it, “On economic issues, Trump turned out to be about as far from populist as one can get…[he] governed as a corporate conservative with an unstable personality.”
Yet, Trump’s empty promises and contradictions have not discouraged his followers. They want to believe that he is in fact different; that he is not just another politician; that he is the one person that can bring real change to their lives. Thus, if Trump’s failures have proven anything to them, it isn’t that he is not who they think he is but that the system is even more rigged against them than they had originally thought. In other words, Trump’s incompetence and dishonesty have made him even more popular among his followers. This, combined with a series of dog-whistles, has fueled among Trumpers a deep-seated desire to take matters into their own hands. In their eyes, it is evident that rules need to be broken, crooks punished, and governmental institutions reformed.
In the end, the one thing that Trump has been successful with is his further de-legitimization of America’s governmental institutions and democratic processes. In other words, he has managed to preserve the very economic and political conditions that brought him to power in the first place. Thus, Trump and Trumpism are, in many ways, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy (a dynamic that has played an important role in the 2020 presidential elections amidst premature and unfounded claims of voter fraud).
Biden’s win in the 2020 presidential elections followed what was probably one of the most agitated years of recent American history. Fueled by Trump’s frantic tweets and absurd proclamations, trade wars, conspiracy theories, police brutality, systemic racism, wildfires, a global pandemic, and heavily armed far-right militias had brought an already divided and politically unstable country to the brink of another civil war. Just like in the early 20th century, long-suffered deep economic and political crisis has been fueling hyper-nationalist, xenophobic, and authoritarian sensibilities. Fortunately for the US, its democratic institutions have been able to hold long enough for a new president-elect to come into play.
Biden appears in a familiar Obama-like fashion as the Democratic president who will restore American society to a state of normalcy and unity. But this does not mean that the deeply entrenched resentment and grievances of Trump’s voters will simply go away or be effectively neutralized. Biden is in a particularly precarious position. If he fails to meaningfully re-unite the American people under a common national project and to restore the legitimacy of the nation’s governmental institutions and democratic processes, he risks reinforcing the types of sentiments that led to Trump’s election in the first place — except that, this time around, the danger is even greater than it was in 2016.
As I mentioned earlier, Trump failed to do just about everything that he set out to do. His incompetence regarding political matters meant that he simply did not have the know-how (or the temper) to achieve anything other than the further agitation of an already disgruntled, resentful, and marginalized population. If Biden fails to undo Trump’s mess, he risks the emergence and potential election in 2024 of a much more capable Trump-like figure.
To avoid this, Biden must restore the legitimacy of the US’s democratic political space and show palpable results to the people that voted for and against him. He, in tandem with various institutions and branches of American media, are already taking steps in this direction by overcoming Trump-mandated voter suppression and quickly fact-checking — and even censoring — Trump’s conspiratorial ramblings. The president-elect has also proposed a vague national project for healing the country (both literally and metaphorically) through his own, more progressive and inclusive brand of American populism. But the integrity of America’s democratic institutions and the prevention of the emergence of another, more capable Trump-like figure will depend also on the extent to which Biden is able to meaningfully improve the material conditions of common Americans. After all, it is precisely on the basis of this that Biden will truly be able to restore faith in the American system and contain the proliferation and spread of already-present proto-fascist sentiments across the nation.
If Trump’s chapter in American history has taught us anything, it is that the real threat to America’s democratic integrity has been its government’s mismanagement of domestic and international interests. At the domestic level, common Americans’ grievances and disillusionment with their democratic institutions have been largely grounded in the latter’s faithfulness to Wall Street and its corresponding subordination of national economic policy to the needs of giant international banks and corporations. At the international level, America has benefitted tremendously through globalization, but these earnings have been monopolized by their own capitalist elite. As such, America’s political crisis is the product of both its internal governmental structure and the role that it has taken as steward of global capitalism. Now the question is: What will Biden do about this?
From the outset, it has been clear that Joe Biden is just another Democrat: a generic cure for an evolving illness. As such, the president-elect with ‘friends on both sides’ can be expected to make some concessions to both sides of the political spectrum (e.g. with his climate plan) without necessarily tackling the root of the American political crisis. His vision of America is not one of improved material conditions and democratic legitimacy against capitalist globalization pressures. If anything, he presents himself as America’s very own Fitbit in that he will not eliminate systemic racism, unbridled capitalist expansion, environmental degradation, economic protectionism, job precarity, economic inequality, healthcare access disparities, military interventions, etc. but, rather, show the American population how much of this is ‘normal’ or ‘desirable’ according to research-based, technocratic calculations. In the end, he will act according to these calculations, but only if Republicans allow it.
Exactly what his brand of American restoration and globalization will look like remains to be seen. It is obvious that he cannot go back to the good ol’ days of neoliberal policies and technocratic solutions of the past few decades. Americans have already expressed how they feel about these. A viable solution at the moment appears to be not de-globalization (world economies, supply chains, and information networks are too deeply intertwined for this), but a less predatory and more regulated form of globalization (perhaps one resembling that of the postwar reconstruction era). This would certainly help redress popular grievances and restore popular faith in America’s governmental institutions and democratic processes. But it seems unlikely that Biden will take on this type of project as he seems to have no interest in strengthening the working-class or in taming global capitalist expansion.
Sources & Recommended Readings:
Crouch, Colin. The Globalization Backlash. Cambridge: Polity, 2018.
Frieden, Jeffry A. Global Capitalism: Its Fall and Rise in the Twentieth Century. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2020.
Green, Jeremy. Is Globalization Over? Cambridge: Polity, 2019.
Kuttner, Robert. Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019.
Panitch, Leo, and Sam Gindin. The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire. London: Verso, 2012.
Tooze, Adam. Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World. New York: Viking, 2018.