Radicalization was a trap for Democrats. Trump is the one who needs this polarization and knows best how to use it.
It is said that Donald Trump’s biggest failure is his inability to unite the country when it comes to his presidency. It would be better to say that it is exactly upon the division of the American society that his strength relies. This division is not new, but its intensity and the fracture it has led to are indeed new. It wasn’t Trump who created this. He only lives off of it – and radicalizes it.
There are historical, geographical and social differences in a continent-country such as the U.S., but the greatest conflict between what some call the “two nations” involves values and behavior. The resentment of white voters, in economic and insecurity terms, was decisive in Trump’s election in 2016. However, more important than the social and economic factors are the ideological variables that have given way to the cultural war. American society became polarized between antagonistic attitudes regarding the political elite, the role of the state, minorities and immigrants, women and family and customs and religion. The sources of information that the two Americas rely on are not the same.
This division was imposed on the political scene with devastating consequences. The tea party protests in 2009 during Barack Obama’s first term and Trump’s election in 2016 are significant moments. Political opponents became enemies. The Republican Party started a radicalization process to which the Democrats responded with a corresponding inflection to the left. Liberals and conservatives have quickly moved away from the center, which now tends to remain vacant.
In turn, political radicalization aggravates social division. A survey carried out by the Pew Research Center in November 2017 reveals the intensity of the radicalization of the elites in the two parties. Their vanguards, the most faithful and influential militants, are at the top of the social pyramid of America’s social and cultural elite, and they are the ones who most resist coexistence with the others.
Radicalization was a trap for Democrats; Trump is the one who needs this polarization and who knows best how to use it. The Republican Party ended up becoming domesticated, since their candidates and representatives fear losing votes if they diverge from the president. The separation of powers and the mechanisms of executive authority were shaken. The regime turned to the president, and revolves increasingly more around the presidential elections. And in an unsecure America, Trump is a skilled manager of the business of fear.
The importance of these elections can’t be measured today, but rather they will be measured in the near future. The Democrats’ conquest of the House of Representatives might have contradictory effects and it might create an institutional crisis, for Trump will be tempted to radicalize his conflicts with the Congress and to use Congress as a scapegoat for his own failures. On the other hand, the Democrats’ win might re-establish a relative balance of powers, limiting presidential discretion. If this happens, it will be a sign for the institutions to resist, and a factor in revitalizing American democracy.