By Roberto Savio
Now it is clear that Joe Biden is the new president of the United States. It is unlikely that Donald Trump’s legal manoeuvring will change the election results, as when a conservative Supreme Court in 2000 decided in favour of George Bush over Al Gore, who lost by 535 votes. Even this Supreme Court, where Trump has six sympathetic members (three appointed by him, quite a record), and only three unsympathetic, will dare to change a result coming from too many states.
Trump is gone, but it is sad to say, Trumpism is here to stay. But is that a specific situation of the United States, or is it a more general phenomenon? We think that, in an era of globalisation, we should attempt a global analysis. This will leave out a zillion of facts, events and analysis, but this is now the destiny of journalism. Anyone can add what they think is relevant and decide what has been left out. This will be a big improvement over this abridged analysis.
But let us start with the United States first. Biden’s victory comes from the unusually high participation in the election, where it attracted 67% of the voters. In American elections, participation rarely exceeds 50%, although the largest participation was in 1900, when 73% of the population votes. Remember that in the US, voting is defined as a privilege, not a duty. To vote, you have to register, and many states make that a demanding task, automatically excluding the more fragile part of the population.
Biden won the largest popular vote in US history: 71.4 million compared with the 69.4 million obtained by Barack Obama. Nevertheless Trump gathered 68.3 million votes, nearly four million more than in 2016, in spite of a pandemic which, until now, has left more than 230.000 dead, with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and after four years of confrontations, some massive, like Black Lives matter. He doubled the votes of the LGBT community, he obtained 18% of Afro-American votes, white woman increased their vote for him by 6%, and he won Florida thanks to the Latino votes (Cubans, Venezuelans and to a lesser extent Puerto Ricans).
The United States is going through a demographic transformation, which will further exacerbate the polarisation. The Census Bureau estimates that this year the majority of the country’s 74 million children will not be white. And in the decade of the 2040s, the white population will be under 49% with the other 51% made up of Latinos, blacks, Asians and other minorities.
The genesis of the United States differs from that of Europe. It was created by an immigration of English religious radicals, who wanted to create a new world, a “town shining on a hill”, where the secularism and moral corruption of their country would be left behind. Following their arrival, they had to fight against indigenous people who were considered barbarians, without a true religion (very much like the Spanish conquest did in Latin America). The war of independence from England reinforced the moral value of their action: freedom from tyranny, And, with the Industrial Revolution, wave after wave of immigrants arrived, all escaping Europe because of poverty or oppression They were also uneducated and obliged to integrate into an already existing strong society, which defined itself a ‘WASP’ (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) society. To do this, the US invented mass media as an instrument for the melting pot (until then in Europe newspapers had small circulations for the elites), and two myths: American Exceptionalism and the American Dream.
The conquest of the west was a national saga, with the cinema as the other instrument for the melting pot. Children of different immigrants reacted with joy to the sound of the trumpet announcing the cavalry charge which would wipe out hordes of attacking Indians. And beside media and cinema, a strong advertising industry shaped tastes and consumption patterns. An abundance of natural resources, and a permanent arrival of immigrants, fuelled continuous growth. Here the two myths become uncontested truth. America exceptionalism, the fact that US has a different destiny form all other countries, became a staple of public discourse. In 1850, President James Monroe emitted a declaration, by which no European country was any longer allowed to intervene in Latin America. And still today, a large part of the population thinks that US has the right to intervene in the world, because US is the keeper of order and law in a chaotic world.
To become an American citizen, you have to swear that you forget your origins, because you are born a new man. The inscription on the Statue of Liberty, which was what millions of immigrants saw first after a long journey, bears an inscription which symbolises the myth well:
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries the Statue with silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-lost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The second myth, the American Dream, was another powerful tool for patience and hard work. It was part of the Protestant founding legacy. Anybody who works hard will become affluent or rich. If you do not become rich, it is because you did not try hard enough. This is the myth that evangelical church has adopted: God rewards the hardworking faithful, and not the lazy. As a result, poverty is not contemplated by God. And the evangelical church has achieved a remarkable result (not only in the US, but everywhere, from Brazil to Guatemala): having the poor voting to the right.
US exceptionalism is evident when you look at other English colonies. Australia, for example, was the destination of prostitutes, thieves and bankrupt British citizens. It would never be thinkable that the prime minister of Australia speak on behalf of Australia and Humankind, as the US president routinely does. Nor does the PM of Canada ever speak in the name of God or say that God loves Canada. The US is the only country in the world that does not accept its military personnel being judged by a foreign court.
And the US saw confirmation of its exceptionalism, and its role as defender of the humankind, with the Second World War. Despite the enormous loss of Russian troops and civilians (27 million, compared with 419,000 Americans), the clear victor against the evils of Nazism and Fascism was the United States of America. It was able to win the war because of its astonishing military production (one ship in three days), and the construction of the atomic bomb. So, the US entered our contemporary era with all its myths reinforced.
And the Marshall Plan, which resurrected Europe from its ruins, was a measure of containment against the new evil, Communism, but it also become final proof of its superiority and solidarity.
The US also created the United Nations as an institution which would avoid the repetition of the horrors of the war. It was intended to bring all counties together under the same roof, and take decisions trough debates and agreements, not war. But the world did not freeze, because the American vision of the world became a straitjacket for the US. It preached freedom of trade and investments. Of course, it was by far the strongest country, and so the winner of an American World Order, with the Soviet threat under containment, the strategy formulated by American diplomat George F. Kennan in 1947.
But once the UN expands from the original 50 countries to 187, and you insist on free competition and trade, you become a victim of your rhetoric. Those countries, in a democratic institution, all have a vote. In 1973, the General Assembly unanimously voted for a New World Economic Order, based on international solidarity and the transfer of wealth from the rich countries to the poor for world development. The United States voted with the General Assembly. But then came Ronald Reagan, an admirer of John Wayne and in many ways a precursor of Trump. Shortly after his election, Reagan went to the North-South Summit of Head of States in Cancun, Mexico, in 1981, to announce that US no longer accepted being a country like all others, and that it would pursue foreign policy that was more convenient to its interests.
Reagan had also a vision of a radical change at home. He believed strongly that the values of social justice, solidarity and fiscal equity, had become a brake on the economy and society. He was the first to introduce the idea that the state (the “beast”) was bloated, costly and inefficient, and the enemy of business and corporations, which should be left untouched to allow all their creativity to be freed. Among others, he wanted to shut down the Ministry of Education, because he believed that education could be done better by the private system. He was a very good communicator, and a specialist in finding easy answers to very complicated issues, banalising the real issue – an example on environment: industries do not pollute, trees pollute. By his time, the US had reached an impressive level of research and teaching (for a few), as shown by the large numbers of Nobel Prizes.
Reagan was also the first to openly challenge the elites, speaking on behalf of ordinary citizens: the people. And it is here that US story lose its individual identity and starts to merge with the world. Reagan had a counterpart in Europe, Margaret Thatcher, who shared the same vision, and went to fight trade unions, cut state spending, privatised railways, airports and whatever else possible. She famously declared that ”society does not exist, only individuals”. Together they launched what was called neoliberal globalisation and they withdrew from UNESCO. The main basis was that the market and no longer man, was the basis of the economy and society. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said that globalisation was the new name for American Domination.
All this was reinforced by three historical events. 1) The fall of Berlin Wall in 1989 which eliminated the threat of communism and gave capitalism total freedom for manoeuvring. 2) The Washington Consensus, established by the US Treasury, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The Consensus ordered worldwide that social costs were unproductive, that any national barrier should be abolished for allowing investments and free trade to prosper and privatise as much as possible. 3) UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’ theory according to which, because it was impossible to halt globalisation, it would be best for the Left to ride it and become its human face. So, for two decades, under American influence, neoliberal globalisation became the norm of governance, both at national and international level. According to its apologists, it would lift all boats.
But then in 2008, an earthquake shook Wall Street. In 1999, under Bill Clinton, the Steagall-Glass regulation, adopted after the crash of 1929, was abolished. That regulation kept investment banks separate from traditional commercial banks. A giant tsunami hit investments, i.e. speculation. Free of any control and international control (the banking sector is the only one in the world without any regulator or comptroller), the banking system took on a life of its own, leaving the real economy. And it went into more and more speculative operations until, in 2008, the American banks went practically bankrupt. That crisis expanded worldwide, and in Europe in 2009 banks also went into bankruptcy. According to OECD estimates, to rescue the banking system, the world had to invest two trillion dollars. That comes to 267 dollar per person in a world in which nearly 2 billion people then lived on less than two dollars a day.
The crisis of 2008-9, and the consequent uncertainty and fear, obliged a critical examination of neoliberal theory, For nearly three decades, citizens, media, civil society, economists, sociologists and statisticians had been denouncing that globalisation in fact exacerbated social injustice, dispossessed many people of their income through delocalisation of companies to cheaper places, created unequal growth between towns and rural area and heavy damage to the planet, and that it was urgent to counter those abuses.
After 8 years of George W. Bush, wars and lack of attention to the social problems of the country, in 2009 America elected a man with a message of hope, integration and peace: Barack Obama. But if Obama really wanted to unravel a system that had been established for 20 years, it was beyond his reach. In 2015, the US Senate passed into the hands of Republicans, and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell blocked every possible move by the Obama administration. In 2017, he refused to even consider Obama’s proposal for the Supreme Court, because there would be elections in ten months (the same Mitch McConnell who, in just three weeks, obtained the appointment of Catholic integralist and traditionalist Amy Coney Barrett on the eve of the just-held elections).
While the dreams evoked by Obama started to fade, the crisis of 2009 brought some unprecedented political developments. Uncertainty and fear were also exasperated by the flow of immigrants from countries destabilized by the interventions of the US and Europe in countries like Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and those escaping dictatorial regimes and hunger. All over the world, that led to a flourishing of nationalism and xenophobia, with so-called ‘sovranist’ parties being established in every country of Europe, and progressively all over the world. They all based themselves on xenophobia against migrants, denunciation of world and regional institutions as illegitimate and enemies of national interests, and speaking on behalf of the people who were victims of globalisation: workers of factories that had closed due to delocalisation, calls to a glorious past (Brexit, 2016), people from rural areas left behind by the faster development of towns (the Yellow Jackets in France in 2018), Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s brutal annexing of Kashmir to India in 2019, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s astonishing elimination of protection of the Amazon in 2019, Xi annexing of Hong Kong 2020.
So, it would be a mistake to single out Trump, when we are facing a much more serious problem. Trump, of course, now leaves the others naked. Maybe this is the beginning of a new political cycle … but the system is now broken, and it is nearly impossible to fix it. The coronavirus pandemic has put another nail in the coffin. The negationist wave is another symptom of how the crisis of trust has eroded our society. And, by the way, we have now two proponents of the Qanon theory of conspiracy elected in the House of Representatives. The Qanon theory is that Hillary Clinton and several other important figures, from Bill Gates to George Soros, gather to drink the blood of young boys in the cellar of a pizzeria in New York. Trump is supposed to be the saviour. The fact that the pizzeria in question has no cellar is irrelevant.
To return to the United States, the myths of exceptionalism and the American Dream have now evaporated in the United States. Trump did surprisingly well if you look at the situation with the eyes of a cultivated guy. He is the first president of the United States who never spoke on behalf of the people: on the contrary, he portrayed those who did not vote for him as un-American. In his government, he had very few Cabinet meetings and he governed through tweets, rarely consulting his staff. He mobilised the fears of the white population against immigrants and other minorities; he proclaimed law and order against any mobilisation, demonising the participants. He is the quintessence of narcissism, he loves only himself, he does not care about anybody else, and he does not trust anyone. He is an example of misogynism, he paid his taxes in China, but not in the US. He has inaugurated the post-truth era, by making several false affirmations every day. He has used the public administration as his personal staff, changing public servants continuously and putting people who share his views in their jobs. The Minister of Education does not believe in the public school. The Minister of Justice believes that the president has power over the judiciary. The person responsible for the environment is against clean energy. It looks as if vampires are in charge of blood banks!
It is useless to list all Trump’s disasters in international affairs as they are well known. He has withdrawn from the idea of international cooperation, from the Paris agreement on climate, from the World Health Organization, he has jeopardised the World Trade Organization (a US creation), shown preferences for dictators like Putin and Kim Il Jong, and banalised the NATO alliance (another US creation), and we could go on and on. He represents classical American isolationism: let is withdraw from a world in chaos, which does not appreciate us, but just wants to exploit us. But we are now living in a multipolar world and globalization is being played by many hands. By 2035, China will have surpassed the US as the world’s strongest power.
Yet, Trump has drawn votes form all the sick strata of American society. The whites that feel threatened; the rural people who feel left behind; the workers from factories that closed because of delocalisation; the affluent middle class of the suburbs who felt threatened by the poor people encroaching on their properties; the blacks who become middle class and looked with horror to the miseries of the majority of Afro-Americans; the evangelicals who were happy with a Supreme Court becoming right wing and having a vice-president, Mike Pence, and a Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who are evangelicals; those who keep the myth of the Far West, its individualism, its macho value and its weapons; all those who look at the state, the public, as an enemy of freedom; the policemen who found their impunity under judgement; those who decided that women, gays, abortion and human rights were tilting America into the opposite of its founding values. All those people exist, they were united by Trump, but they survive him. And in a country where there is now hate and opponents have become enemies, in a country plagued by the opioids epidemic, where one American under six has psychological problems, where more people die each year because of weapons than in the Vietnam War, creating unity is a very, very difficult task.
Democrats thought that to put up an elderly and civilised candidate, Joe Biden, would bring back empathy and dialogue as a rallying factor. In fact, it looks more like Trump has lost the elections than that Biden has won them. Progressives look at him as an epitome of the establishment and will keep pressing him to become freer from the system. We will only know on January 6thif the Republican Party holds on to the Senate, as is likely, and if the Senate returns under the control of Mitch McConnell the blockage it placed in front of Obama will look like gentle times. Biden will be able to undo many of Trump’s executive orders but, for example, he will be unable to change the composition of the Supreme Court, which will last for at least a couple of decades. He will not be able to increase health coverage. The chance of increasing the minimum wage and increasing taxation on the very rich will be near to zero. Republicans will now again become the guardians of fiscal austerity, after having left Trump increase the national deficit to an unprecedented level. And the increasingly powerful left-wing of the Democratic Party will try to condition and push Biden, who they elected just to get rid of Trump.
Trump has now lost his Teflon, and he is a loser. But he has 68 million followers on Twitter, and he is probably going to open his own TV channel. He is going to be a serious problem for the Republican Party. He is going to cultivate the myth of stolen elections and keep his followers in a state of confrontation. Trump is gone, but Trumpism remains. And this is true for the world. Until we eliminate neoliberal globalization, the Trumps, the Bolsonaros, the Viktor Orbans and so on of this world will be just be the visible part of the iceberg. But what is going to do that? We have a ray of hope from civil society. Climate drama has brought young people back to acting. And then there are the other two world mobilisations, Me Too for the dignity of women dignity and Black Lives Matter for combatting racism (which is not just an American phenomena), which have brought together millions of people worldwide.
We are in a period of transition. It is not clear to what, but we can only hope that it will be without blood. In the end, it will depend on men and women all over the world, on the ability to find common values in our diversities for establishing relations of peace and creating social justice, solidarity and participation as global bridges. Controlling climate change and saving our planet is an immediate and urgent task. This will depend on each one of us, and we must make this the first bridge to walk, with all humankind.