With 10 days to go, America will actually begin the era of a Trump administration.* After his election, Donald Trump frequently expressed his views on political and diplomatic affairs through social media, but had not yet represented the American government. But in 10 days the situation will be completely different, and Trump’s words and deeds will represent the world’s most powerful country. What kind of uncertainty will America, under Trump’s leadership, bring to the world? How will America become great again?
Five Major Contradictions in American Society
Let’s first set aside the possible diplomatic policies of the new American administration and take a look at America’s current problems. The author of this article thinks that this past U.S. general election revealed five different types of contradictions.
The first is class contradiction, the most striking feature of which is conflict between the middle class and other classes. The middle class is the foundation of American capitalism, as well as the core of the American dream. However, last year’s surveys showed that the size of America’s middle class dropped to below 50 percent of the country’s population for the first time. As a result, America is no longer an “olive-shaped society” with its middle class as the obvious majority and the other classes as the minority. Instead, American social structure has come to look like a rolling pin. The middle class has lost its advantage, and is anxious and unhappy, which makes the middle class “anti-” in two ways: anti-elite and anti-immigration. Its being anti-elite is reflected as populism, whereas its anti-immigration stance is shown as nativism. In other words, the middle class opposes not only those at the bottom of society but also those at the top. Trump won the election because he successfully revved up the middle class.
The second contradiction exists between regions of the United States. Open the political map of America today and take a look: The red and the blue states are clearly outlined, illustrating the polarization phenomenon. The red states support the Republican Party and the blue states are ballot warehouses for the Democratic Party. The tug of war during the U.S. general election is essentially a fight to win about 10 so-called swing states. Thus, the national election does not depend on what the electorate votes for in most states, but rather depends on the preference of voters in a few swing states. This shows that the American election system has a problem, a serious structural problem. Hillary Clinton couldn’t have believed, not even in her dreams, that Trump would win almost all the swing states. Now it has happened, and the election results cannot be changed despite the fact that Hillary won the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots.
The third contradiction is racial and ethnic conflict. In the past, America’s racial and ethnic disagreement was mainly between black and white. But as Latin Americans, Asians and Muslims increase in number — Latin Americans are America’s largest ethnic minority, accounting for 15 percent of the country’s population, blacks account for 13 percent, Asians and others about 5 percent, while white Americans, still the dominant majority, account for about 66 percent of the population — America’s racial and ethnic contradictions have become increasingly complicated, with contradictions between black and white people, between brown and white people, between yellow and white, black and yellow, black and brown, and yellow and brown people. But the most outstanding of all is the contradiction between white Americans and other races and ethnicities. Trump, in essence, is the principal representative of white supremacy. His extreme views were like a gamble on racism, and he won.
The fourth contradiction is the conflict between generations. Young Americans mostly supported Bernie Sanders; middle-aged Americans, especially middle-aged blue-collar white Americans, supported Trump overall. The elderly were most often supporters of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The reason is simple — groups of different ages have different interests and pursuits. The elderly seek stability, whereas young people look for new things and change. Despite being in a tight race with Hillary in the early stages of this past U.S. general election, Sanders was eventually pushed out of the race by Democratic Party officials, leaving young American voters heartbroken and causing division within the Democratic Party. This is one of the major reasons why Hillary lost the election. People 65 years old and above, and those under 35 were two completely different groups. In between were middle-aged people, the pillar of American society, and it was their support that Trump won, leading to his final victory in the election.
The fifth contradiction involves gender. Profound contradictions exist not only between male and female voters, but also between heterosexuals and homosexuals. In particular, under Obama’s policy to legalize same-sex marriage, the crowd is clearly divided between those who support homosexuals and those against them. The LGBT community has become a political force that no one dares to upset. The number of LGBT people may not be huge, but without much to lose, they have the strong capacity to mobilize a lot of people, being a close-knit circle. Because of political correctness, no one dares to openly discriminate against LGBT individuals, but because of social convention, many people have a deep-rooted dislike of LGBT people. Therefore, gender contradiction has become another significant problem in today’s American society.
The 2016 American general election symbolized the ultimate explosion of the five types of contradictions above, in addition to it being a victory for the anti-elite, anti-establishment, anti-authority and anti-globalization factions.
Political Reasons Are at the Root of the Problem
Why did these five major types of contradictions, interwoven with one another, explode around the same time? The first reason is economic, namely the contradiction within the dual-sector model. On the one hand, there is the financial center in the northeast region of the United States, with Wall Street as its representative, and there are the technology-elite in the West represented by Silicon Valley, where a few clicks on a keyboard can make a billionaire, and the invention of a new product can make an individual as rich as any country. Riding the tide of the times, these sectors are at the tip of the wealth pyramid. In comparison, blue collar workers in the manufacturing sector have to work day and night for a salary that decreases rather than increases, and, even so, some of them are at risk of losing their jobs. In the Rust Belt in the Great Lakes region and in the agricultural states of the American Midwest, what is clearly seen is a developing America. These opposing forces within the dual-sector model have left the American regions and social classes deeply divided.
There is another factor to consider in the American economy — the unfair distribution of wealth. The real problem for America is not one of economic growth, but of the widening gap in its distribution of wealth, where the rich become richer and the poor poorer. This has led to unprecedented stagnation in American social mobility and has been the root of anger for many Americans.
A second reason for the divide is social. On the one hand, as the baby boomer generation enters old age, problems have surfaced in the structure of the American population and conflicts in values between the elderly, the middle-aged and the young have sharpened. On the other hand, there is the problem of immigration. As the population of racial and ethnic minorities increases, white Americans start to have fears they’ve never had before, resulting in an identity crisis of “Who are we?” The problem of illegal immigrants, in particular, has morphed into a tumor in American society. When 13 million illegal immigrants help one another in their fight for rights, benefits and respect, they become a thorny problem that American politicians must face but are unable to resolve. Therefore, racial and ethnic conflicts and problems concerning guns and drugs have become so deep-rooted that they threaten the security of society and are extremely difficult to deal with.
A third reason for the divide is political. This is the real reason. What stands out is conflict between the two parties, conflict between the government and the Congress, and conflict between federal and local government. Politicians’ lack of action, lack of courage to act and incompetence in taking action have caused all kinds of problems to accumulate through the years. It all boils down to one reason, and that is America has failed to progress with the times and undertake profound systematic reforms. As history repeatedly shows, for American capitalism to develop and make progress, it must undergo structural and systematic reforms in stages. Otherwise there will be serious problems.
There were three large-scale reforms in American history. The first reform was the drafting of the United States Constitution and creation of the U.S. capitalist system by the country’s founding fathers, such as George Washington, which ensured the country’s territorial expansion and continual development. The second reform was the Progressive Movement in the late 19th century and the early 20th century, supported by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, enabling America to successfully transform from capitalism to monopoly capitalism. Through monopolization, industrialization, urbanization and internationalization, the United States completed the first stage of its rise to power. The third reform was the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, which saw America transition from monopoly capitalism to state-monopoly capitalism and from a regional power to a global one, thus cementing the country’s position as a hegemonic power in the West.
After the Cold War, from the perspective relating to production, America evolved from state-monopoly capitalism to international monopoly capitalism; in terms of identity and status, America emerged from the bipolar world to become the super power. As for the times in which people lived, war and revolution gave way to peace and development. Facing such a huge change in domestic and international environments, America should have used the opportunity to undertake a new round of systematic reforms, but Bill Clinton was so intoxicated with the prosperity of new economic development and the victory of winning the Cold War that he lacked motivation for reform. Then George W. Bush had to deal with the 9/11 attacks, thus missing an opportunity for reform, and later made the wrong strategic choices only to be further dragged into two wars and one crisis. The American people, having had enough, finally looked to the young black man born in the 1960s with his slogan of “change,” hoping for reform. However, despite his determination, Barack Obama had insufficient power to enact reform. After eight years, “Obama’s New Deal” eventually spattered only a few rain drops despite its thunderous noise, which is hardly a success and rather closer to failure.
America Also Faces the Risks of ‘America First’
Why do I say America has failed this time? The answer comes from an examination of the following conditions that were present in all the reforms of the past.
The first condition is solidarity between the two political parties. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the supporters of the Progressive Movement, despite belonging to different parties and taking different approaches to reform, followed more or less the same direction of reform. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal benefited from his serving as the U.S. president for almost four terms. In comparison, during Obama’s terms of office, the two American political parties were hostile to each other and did not work together.
The second condition is the need for strong characters. The two Roosevelts both had a strong personality, whereas Obama came from humble origins and his words carried even less weight. Because he didn’t come with a solid political foundation, Obama could not at all tame or subdue the Congress.
The third condition is the ability to transfer risk at the right time. World War I helped America’s Progressive movement, and World War II prompted the creation of Roosevelt’s New Deal. In contrast, Obama, after ending two wars and winning the Nobel Peace Prize, clearly had no reason to transfer the risks he faced by waging more wars.
History has witnessed the transfer of the reform relay race baton to Trump. Can he complete this task? He seems to meet at least one of the above conditions, that is, he seems to be a strong character. But it takes only one step to go from being a strong character to being a mad man, and if he is strong in the wrong way, he may cause disasters. Not yet in office, Trump is already making one mistake after another. Simply watching him makes one sweat.
When it comes to solidarity and working with people, Trump is clearly weaker than Obama, as we can all see how divided America already is. Not only is there deep division between the Democratic and the Republican parties, but cracks have begun to show within the Republican Party itself. On the one hand, the Republican Party hopes to use Trump to repeal Obama’s political legacy; on the other hand, it wishes to keep a reasonable distance from Trump on major diplomatic issues — such as policy on Russia. It is not hard to see that today’s America, when it comes to the country’s solidarity, is facing far more severe problems than ever before.
Therefore, if Trump wants to reform, he has to rely on the aforementioned third condition — to take advantage of external factors to transfer risk. His world views and strategy being contrary to those of Obama, Trump has declared many times that militarily he will eradicate “extreme Islam” and that regarding the economy he will curb China and Mexico. The cabinet that he has assembled, a combination of military generals and businessmen, is clearly designed for these two main purposes. He demands protection fees from America’s allies, vows to expel all illegal immigrants and insists on “America First” for everything he does. This is a very dangerous trend and we must be on high alert.
However, in my view, China is not necessarily the country most in danger. In fact, the entire world has to face the strong impact of the Trump storm, including America itself. Let’s wait and see how Trump can break through layers of barriers and obstacles domestic and abroad to trigger a sweeping wave of reform.
The author is vice president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.
*Editor’s note: This article was written prior to the inauguration of Donald Trump but presents relevant perspective.