Cultural Standoff in the US Election

Many years from now, when people look back on the world history of the year 2020, they will undoubtedly recall two events: the global pandemic and the U.S. election. Both have taken the world by storm in a startling way, plunging the world into bouts of a “rebooting” pattern that has not been seen in centuries. No one knows what the world will look like once the storm’s dust has settled, but what is certain is that the trajectory of human civilization has crept onto a different path.

The U.S. being a model of democracy and a global power, its presidential election not only affects international politics and the world economy, but also has a significant impact on the cultural level. For one, since the last U.S. election, the magnificence of American values has been challenged on a global scale as never before. Since World War II, American democracy has been a trendsetter in mainstream international thinking, and even power scandals such as Watergate and Clinton-Lewinsky have been unable to tarnish the majestic image of American values. From JFK and Ronald Reagan during the Cold War to George W. Bush and Barack Obama after the turn of the millennium, although each has had his own agendas and controversies, all were able to sit upright and look confidently at the head of the developed nations of their time. Yet a man whose words never cease to astonish the world has managed to single-handedly overturn the majestic image that has stood firm throughout almost the entire 20th century. Whether you like Donald Trump or not, it is difficult to deny that he has been the U.S. president subjected to the most taunts, slights and reservations from the governments, people and media of the U.S. and developed countries in the past half century.

I believe that with Joe Biden in the White House, the U.S. will definitely shift from “fighting against China” back to “competing against China.” China and Russia remain the U.S.’ main enemies, both overtly and covertly, but the U.S. will no longer be so outside the rules of international organizations and games that have been in place for years, especially with the recent signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. In the face of China’s focused assault, Biden must mend ties with old alliances and reestablish traditional containments instead of Trump’s solo dueling-style “America First” nationalist intent. In short, Biden must restore the great United States of America from before 2016, which, at least on the surface, “demonstrated restraint and a return to propriety, [such that] all ascribed it perfect virtue” (from the “Analects”).

However, I do not think it will be easy for the U.S. to return to such “perfect virtue,” as Trump’s subversion has opened a Pandora’s box of cracks and conflicts. In my opinion, the underlying reality of this electoral conflict has nothing to do with the political divide between “red elephants” and “blue donkeys,” but everything to do with the cultural confrontation between “white cowboys” and the “colorful middle class.”

Trump has definitely become a cultural symbol of the 21st century, not only representing an unpredictable variable in democratic politics, but also as a modern, super-rich version of the American cowboy, single-handedly tweeting a hole through the world’s expectations of the U.S. president. Whether it is the global marketplace or the presidential race, everything seems to be part of his personal “Westworld.” As long as he has the guts and a quick enough gun, there is nothing he dares not say or do to achieve his goal. Add to that his frightening, powerful, simple communication style, fitting very much to the liking of American chauvinistic and elitist-averse voters, which are comprised of both rich and poor, mainly rural white, evangelical, and of course some of the other ethnic groups who share a belief in guns and guts and the motto “liberty or death.”

On the other hand, Biden, too, is a cultural symbol. His pursuit of tolerance, restraint, and his continuation of the relatively politically correct American values of the past half century represent the vision of an elite that is concerned with the decency and rules of ethnic integration, gender equality and international affairs. Despite surpassing his opponent by 74 electoral votes, the fact that the two sides were so closely matched means that the perceived progressive concepts in the past are being challenged in the U.S. In addition, highly pointed and powerful social media tools are accelerating the fracturing of public opinion, and it appears that the cultural confrontation will continue on after this election. The question is whether Taiwan, which has been deeply influenced by the United States, will be able to stay safe in the shadow of this fractured beacon — both culturally and militarily.

The writer is the founding chairman of the Asia Pacific Cultural and Creative Industries Association.

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