Is Donald Trump changing American society?
Donald Trump is monopolising debate about the United States, and this is creating a “magnifying glass effect” that might well cause us to misanalyse the situation. The president’s unpredictability and his desire to break with the status quo are certainly risks in and of themselves, spreading shocks and uncertainty around the globe. But the other issue we must also focus on is why and how he made it to the White House; the reasons for his electoral success have not gone away.
To put it another way, irrespective of the outcome of the next presidential election, what matters most is the long-term governability of the United States. This issue is currently stirring up debate among political analysts, and it is something we need to keep in mind, though without adopting a “doom and gloom” mentality. Trump is thus as much a symptom and a revealer of the way things are as he is a problem. And, whatever the next two years may bring, the American question is not confined to Trump’s big, brash self or to the risks that come with his potential re-election. In politics, there are always two levels of analysis: the event, and what it might represent in terms of potential for political change, and the underlying trends, which explain the event and are, in fact, points of certainty.
So it is these trends that interest us – especially given that, as of now, electoral scenarios are dangerously hard to map out. These trends are also what investors must keep in mind in the pre-election years if they are to avoid overreacting to a succession of events. Indeed, the US president has every incentive to constantly divide the electorate: that is the springboard from which he was elected, and he has not sought to change it since, for this division is also the mechanism that has enabled him to maintain an extremely strong loyal core of 35-40% of the vote. Not a bad strategy, then: 40% of the vote is hardly something to be sneezed at.
But what about these deep underlying trends?
Institutions in crisis
The institutional crisis predates Donald Trump. Washington is malfunctioning, and has been for a long time. In fact, America’s institutions (from electoral law through to the mode of representation) were designed to force parties to make compromises, but they seize up if the latter are incapable of doing so. The Senate is now nothing more than a battlefield, or a football pitch, depending on your preferred choice of metaphor. But this incompatibility between political life and institutions is first and foremost the result of changes in society, marked by the slow rise – over a period of 30 years – of all kinds of divisions: economic, social, demographic, urban and cultural. In short, identity-based divisions. Therein lies the source of both short-term violence and long-term political risk (1).
Over the past few years, the spotlight has been on inequality as the explanation for political indignation. The issue is beginning to be well understood. However, the theme of division has yet to be sufficiently explored as a key factor in a second level of crisis: namely, difficulty finding a new consensus. Because of these divisions, people can no longer understand each other, talk to each other or even hear each other. Neither the words nor the tone in which they are said mean the same to everyone.
Incommunicability as a source of illegitimacy
So the crisis is taking on an odd semantic aspect, and this is an important political signal: the issue of language (2) must not be underestimated. Especially since the “anti-establishment” machine seems to be infecting the entire lexical field of politics. More simply, a kind of linguistic aggression is spreading. All this inevitably leads to a risk of ungovernability, linked to the increasingly widespread sentiment – shared by populists and non-populists alike – that institutions have lost their legitimacy. So we now have parallel worlds, split between those who listen to Fox News and those who listen to CNN, those who live in New York and those who live elsewhere. Whether the next president is a Democrat or a Republican, he or she will have a hard time getting these different worlds to get along: Trump will, in the meantime, have widened the chasm between them.
An impossible political consensus
The centre of gravity of political thought has shifted somewhat to the left, and this has a big impact on the Democrats. The rise of the millennials (3) in society amplifies this phenomenon: they have been marked by the social violence of the 2009 crisis and the activism of Occupy Wall Street (4) on the one hand, and by the ideas of one Bernie Sanders, who has made “socialism” slightly less of a dirty word in the United States, on the other. The candidate who wins the Democratic primaries is thus very likely to be identified as being “on the left”. However, this runs the risk of being incompatible with the presidential election itself. Moreover, it will give the Republicans ammunition, since a Green New Deal (5), for example, would be worrying from a fiscal perspective. On the other side, meanwhile, the Republican Party has been “Trumpified”. This is reflected not necessarily in support for the president, who is criticised by many senators, but in the fact that debate is organised around his ideas. And, of course, the fear of opposing the president increases the more powerful he becomes, and the more people he puts in place within the justice system.
Cracks in the rule of law
Lastly, and most importantly, it has been observed – somewhat unusually in the United States – that Trump’s electoral base seems to remain loyal to the president no matter what he does. And Trump knows it. He has also understood all along that institutional paralysis would allow him to duck responsibility for failing to deliver on his promises. Lastly, he has realised just how much latitude the president has when it comes to exceptional powers. His declaration of a state of emergency has little impact in the short term, blocked by institutions that are “standing up” to Trump. But the risk lies elsewhere: presidents are granted emergency powers to manage emergencies, not to define them. In political science, this is the difference between managing a sovereign state and becoming sovereign in managing that state. This shift poses a constitutional problem in the short term but a problem of abuse of power in the long term.
In conclusion, America’s institutions will survive Donald Trump if he is not re-elected. But they are suffering the effects of divisions in society, and have been rocked by Trump’s presidency more than anyone could have anticipated. Trump is no historical anomaly: he is the product of history. Finally, as the constitutional battle rages on, civil rights are being eroded. This also should perhaps be a central focus of long-term analysis for citizens and investors alike: what we are seeing here is a signal that the rule of law is being sidelined (6).
(1) Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence, Penguin, 2007
(2) Umberto Eco, Reconnaître le fascisme, Grasset, 2017
(3) The generation born between 1980 and 2000.
(4) A non-violent protest movement that began on 17 September 2011 denouncing the abuses of financial capitalism.
(5) A programme focused on both social and ecological issues.
(6) Robert Malley, Donald Trump précipite le déclin américain, Le Monde, 20 February 2019