This week, we acted like Donald Trump. Which is to say we let ourselves fall prey to emotions and first impressions.
The former president has a paradoxical effect on us. He increases our interest in the United States, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, it comes at the cost of an equal increase in our ignorance and lack of understanding of the country’s history. We were repeatedly told that charging Donald Trump with a crime was unprecedented in American political history. In fact, while it was indeed the first time it has happened to a former president, we forget that, since the United States was founded, more than 100 American politicians have been charged with and convicted of federal crimes. Corruption, it seems, has very deep roots in Washington.
As for Trump, he is clearly a politician who is willing to violate every norm and tradition of the liberal democratic republic. Some of the clearest examples of this include the fact he denied the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election results, pressured officials to falsify election results in Georgia, and attempted to advance a constitutional coup that would have prevented the peaceful transfer of power to Joe Biden in January 2021.
What led Trump to engage in such behavior? His ambition and bad character, certainly, but that doesn’t explain it sufficiently. The former president intuitively understands the particular characteristics of the times we live in. The standard of living of the middle class and the neediest has grown worse in recent decades, while debt incurred by families, companies and the federal government has increased, and the average life expectancy is declining. This last point is worth paying attention to.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the life expectancy in the United States has dropped to 76.4 years old in recent years (73.5 for men and 79.3 for women). In terms of health, things are not going well, and we would need to go back more than a century to find a comparable situation.
This is the context in which Trump reenters the race for president. In 2016, he took the Republican Party by storm, eliminating the elite who had long asserted control over the party and creating a political movement that is supposed use election campaigns to prioritize defending the interests of values of the middle class and those facing tenuous living situations. Trump’s defeat in 2020 resulted in an effort by Trump and a number of his supporters to stage a coup d’etat. The attempt failed. The fundamental question now is, who will lead this populist and nationalist movement in the 2024 presidential race, and what will its agenda be?
The most relevant point of the past week, then, is not so much Trump’s indictment in Manhattan, but rather how he evaluates the structural forces at work in American society today. This will likely be a turbulent decade for the country, and Trump’s ambition will be the catalyst for the kind of national discord that could allow him to regain power. In Europe, others are likely to follow a similar agenda.
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