The conflicting images of Trump reflect social division between generations of the industrial age and those of post-industrial society.

Trump’s Conflicting Images

Recently it has been interesting to see Donald Trump being projected by the mainstream media and American society as an arrogant and autocratic tyrant as well as being ridiculed as an absurd and affected character. It seems that to his opponents, Trump is at once a tyrant and a clown. On the one hand, there’s the danger of his challenging the boundaries of presidential power, and on the other, there’s his laughable, nonpresidential clumsiness. This image, in fact, reflects a social structure riddled with cracks, in which Trump and those he represents lack the power of discourse.

Trump’s recent actions were a response to the wishes of his supporters in the U.S., such as his absolute no-comprise attitude toward immigration issues and his insistence on the return of industry and improving infrastructure. All these were met with fierce and unrelenting resistance from his opponents. The stark contrast between those who detest him and those who support him is obvious. This is the result of the sharp division brought on by globalization and post-industrial development in the West in recent years.

Generations of the Industrial Age and Those of the Post-Industrial Era

In the past, when people looked at the world and the United States, they looked at the gap between the rich and the poor; that is, the gap between the so-called 1 percent and the remaining 99 percent. This is, therefore, the basis for the demands of left-wing movements such as Occupy Wall Street. However, observation of the world and the U.S. is much less often approached from another angle, at a deeper level; that is, the division between the traditional “generations of the industrial age” and the new “generations of the post-industrial era.”

The classification of people here is based on their modes of production* and on the social forces in a specific social structure. The “generations of the industrial age” are people in relations of production dominated by major industries with manufacturing at its foundation since the Industrial Revolution.** They once included blue-collar workers and later became the middle class in the middle of the 20th century. In recent years, however, as outsourcing took place in a time of globalization and de-industrialization, they fell from being the pillars of society and ended up as its burden. Stubbornly holding on to old values, they felt thoroughly disappointed in the sweeping wave of globalization, and the majority of them were white people closely connected initially with industrial production. In the meantime, traditional industries, such as manufacturing, were faced with global expansion on the one hand, and transformation and upgrade on the other. The manufacturing industry, on the whole, was beginning to lose its importance in society, and so were industrial capitalists.

Since the 1970s, the entire technological evolution, from the revolution of personal computers to the internet and the mobile internet, has been joining forces with a profound change in values in the West, starting in the 1960s and centering on the absorption of left wing ideas. Together they formed a global driving force in the post-Cold War era. New industries revolving around the internet emerged on a large scale. And it was here that the generations of the post-industrial era were born. From programmers to bosses in Silicon Valley, for instance, people there could not be more different from people working in traditional industries, coming from all corners of the world and from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, enjoying cultural diversity and benefitting from globalization.

These new industries attracted worldwide talent and extended these industries’ global reach so that people working in these industries were not stuck in any one place. Whether it was fledgling programmers or successful managers, they were all full of energy and believed they were the future. Additionally, they received all kinds of support from the intellectual elite and were backed by a whole set of “politically correct” views of “baizuo” and “shengmu” in the West beginning in the 1960s.*** The so-called high professions in the news industry, the entertainment industry and academia, including traditional media, Hollywood and universities, despite being originally based on solid industrialization, soon gravitated toward the generations of the post-industrial era and became their advocates. Ultimately, a deep chasm of contradiction appeared between the generations of the post-industrial era and the traditional generations of the industrial age, who lacked advocates, the power of discourse and social status.

This chasm does not only represent the gap between the rich and the poor, but also the widening gap between people in new industries and those in traditional ones. Even among the rich, those in conventional industries could not help but feel that their social status was sliding downward at dizzying speed and that their future was unpredictable. As a result, they found it easier to identify with those in the same industry. Similarly, when farmers and landlords in a traditional agricultural society were confronted with the impact of industrialization, they sided against workers or capitalists who represented industrialization.

This division can also be felt in a wide variety of problems. Take immigration for example. Overall, immigration is good news for the generations of the post-industrial society, so the strongest opposition to Trump’s immigration ban came from Silicon Valley. Immigration helps to attract talent from all over the world to industry as well as drive down the cost of labor. In the meantime, a diverse and inclusive culture helps immigrants integrate into the host society more easily. In this way, it helps ensure that the service industry and the manufacturing industry can better serve the new economy. However, the arrival of immigrants also threatens conventional jobs with more competition and has a deep impact on, even injures, the inherent values and views of the generations of the industrial age. American society, in recent years, has generally been gravitating toward the generations of the post-industrial era, catering to their interests and pursuits. Therefore, the entire mainstream elite in today’s America, the so-called “pro-establishment camp,” is in effect in the service of this new economic and social structure.

Who Holds the Key to the World?

Those who Trump represents and gathers around him are those from the traditional generations of the industrial age and he speaks to their needs, whereas the generations of the post-industrial society have little in common with Trump. Trump’s rise to power at this time is a symbol of a counterstrike by the generations of the industrial age. This counterstrike is powerful and has a huge impact. Trump has successfully mobilized supporters by taking advantage of the two challenges faced by the generations of the post-industrial era and their western mainstream advocates.

First, while the globalization process dominated by the Western mainstream group seems to succeed everywhere it goes, it has met a series of tremendous challenges in the Middle East and Western Asia. This has resulted in the thorny problems seen on our global landscape, such as widely spreading terrorism and continuous and difficult refugee situations. The initial concept that immigrants and refugees could be integrated into a multicultural society is now considered unlikely to materialize. New immigrant groups have had huge impact on Western societies, and to some degree, even shaken the West’s confidence in their idea of dominating the process of globalization. This is a massive setback for the initial concept of globalization.

Second, the dissatisfaction of the generations of the industrial age in the West has erupted. Formerly the pillars of Western societies, they are now staring into the pit of difficulty and becoming the unnoticed and silenced. Meanwhile, the lack of infrastructure, the escalation of racial and ethnic conflicts, and the incompatibility between political correctness and reality all pile on top of one another and feed into the dissatisfaction. All of Trump’s new policies are aimed at the interests of the generations of the industrial age.

But Trump’s words and deeds encounter fierce opposition from the generations of the post-industrial era, who represent new industries and the new social structure. Recent strong attacks from the media, Hollywood, universities and Silicon Valley are proof of such opposition, and even more so is the judicial resistance from the “pro-establishment camp.” Trump’s global image as a ridiculous and laughable freak has something to do with the style and methods of the traditional generations of the industrial age that are being detested. Trump is a tyrant, because his domineering style is completely incompatible with the diverse and mobile internet age where differences between classes have dissipated; he is a clown, because he is temperamental, absurd, abrasive and unreliable, someone that does not fit into today’s society.

The social contradiction he faces is structural, in America as well as in the world. As we can now see, the critical part of the contradiction are the internal conflicts in America, which also reflect the changes in industrial structures and societies around the world. Not only in the West but also in other regions, the conflicts and struggles between the generations of the industrial age and those of the post-industrial era are seen more frequently. (Take China for example. One frequently hears complaints from traditional industries against the internet and e-commerce.) Trump happens to give prominence to this global structural contradiction in a crucial country such as the United States. Ironically indeed, it is Trump who has picked the fruit of internet innovation, Twitter, and used it effectively, bypassing the constraints on him from the mainstream media and the establishment, speaking directly to his supporters and all of society. The fruits of internet innovation have also served and empowered traditional generations, and this is one of the interesting paradoxes of our time.

Therefore, conflicts like these will deepen in the future, as the internet develops further. In fact, looking back at our history, when agriculture was being threatened by industrialization from the 17th century to the 19th century, there were numerous forces opposing and attacking industrialization. Conservative forces, such as the machine-smashing Luddites, and radical left-wing forces with visions of a Utopian society were all results of the huge impact of industrialization. This kind of clash lasted a long time in history.

Today’s antagonism between the new internet-based economy and the traditional industry-led economy will also continue. The rise of Trump is also an important link in this process. The divide between the generations of the industrial age and those of post-industrial society is exactly one of the global symptoms. Since the 1990s, anti-globalization has been an important force, but the movement was mostly made up of leftists in the West protesting against damage to the world caused by globalization, followed by radical forces in a few developing countries, plus some extreme elements. This version of anti-globalization not only lacked an effective solution as a replacement, but also lacked real political and economic power to divert globalization onto a different path. It was far from being able to shake the foundation of post-Cold War globalization. But Trump, or rather the current forces rising in the West, including Le Pen in France, want to draw up a set of feasible and detailed plans prioritizing their nations’ real interests, similar to “America First.” From anti-immigration, which opposes the free movement of people, to clashes with established and politically correct mainstream values, they fully intend to see de-globalization materialize from all angles. Hence the impact will be colossal.

To sum it up, in America, who controls the situation will be key, and this is completely different from changing a president as in the past. This is not a matter of different political parties taking turns in the game, but an entirely different design of the future and a duel fought hard to decide which path to take, so it will be fiercer and no one can afford to lose, which increases the uncertainty. Who will have the say will determine people’s future and the world’s future path. And in 2017, the West is faced with a number of key national choices, which are also critical indicators. The uncertainty in the world is thus highlighted in the antagonism between the generations of the industrial age and those of the post-industrial society.

So, who will be the boss of the future?

*Translator's note: The author is referring to modes of production as a term in Marxism, meaning the method of producing the necessities of life.

**Translator’s note: The author is referring to relations of production as another term in Marxism, meaning the sum total of social relationships that people must enter into in order to survive, to produce, and to reproduce their means of life.

***Translator's note: The word “baizuo” is Chinese internet slang, literally translated as “white leftists.” It is used loosely, with a negative connotation, to refer to white left-wing liberals who support free movement of people, social welfare, gender/racial equality, diversity, freedom of religion and so on. The word “shengmu”is literally translated as “the Holy Mother.” Used by Chinese participants in online discussions to loosely refer to people who hold inclusive and tolerant attitudes toward social minorities and/or disadvantaged groups, sometimes even at the expense of their own interests.

The author is a professor in the department of Chinese language and literature at Peking University, China.