Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts. Please see “Politico, Ergo Sum: Who Is To Blame for Trump’s Return? – Part 1” published Feb. 6, 2024.
Conflict between a sovereign regime and a potentially hostile regime provides an argument for the a regime’s rule over a populace, while conflict within a populace greatly facilitates that rule. The political parties’ binary opposition, the sharp divides between social and mainstream media positions, the confrontations between religious tradition and progressive reform, science versus faith, affluence versus poverty, “native” Americans and Native Americans versus immigrants, and the East and West Coasts versus the flyover states: All these seemingly disparate but in fact dialectically united conflicts are shaping the complex and fragmented social consciousness of the contemporary U.S. Even though there is no scientific basis for these identities and positions, in the subjective and emotive search to belong, the enemy is defined as the “other,” the friend is framed as the “Self,” and the interaction between the Other and the Self is both bound and filled by the “symbolic big Other” of “society” (referring to the theories of Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek). We cannot escape the social order and institutions that create opposition and give meaning; amid internal divisions of every description, people have no choice but to give way to those in power and accept reality.
In this light, it is not hard to understand the different attitudes of American voters. Many American liberals, progressives and neoconservatives (including a small number of moderate Republicans) believe to this day that Trump supporters are all uneducated white supremacists, in thrall to blind conservative beliefs and inward-looking nationalism.
As for the vast majority of Trump supporters (“fringe opinion” concentrated outside of the new Republican and political mainstreams), they are convinced that the liberal elite are ignorant sheep in the deep-state monopoly, or that they are the economic and financial power elite who are subordinate to it and are using the destruction of “traditional American values” to establish a new “globalist” hegemony.
The few “centrists” who swing between these two positions tend to vote based on personal economic situations and dissatisfaction and grievances with those in power — they are ideologically bound to neither end of the spectrum, so their positions are commensurately more unstable.
The biggest difference between the pro-Trump and anti-Trump camps lies in how they differentiate and assess the “self” versus the “other.” In 2020, progressives, liberals and moderate conservatives within the Democratic Party, as well as swing centrists and traditional Republicans, built a crude political alliance and platform on the premise of being joined in opposition to a common adversary. Setting aside their internal conflicts and rifts, this allowed the White House to change hands.
But in the years since, a narrative from within this camp that unites all factions and that members sincerely and enthusiastically accept has yet to emerge, other than “not Trump”; anti-Trumpers lack the unified and coherent identity that would allow them to make it clear that “We are all on the same side.”
Trump supporters, on the other hand, have chosen to live in a unified — albeit unrealistic — alternate universe, thanks to their stubborn resistance discourse and fantasies of persecution. Their continued belief in sham narratives, including that Trump won the 2020 election, conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 and vaccines, and that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S., along with what French social psychologist Gustave Le Bon called the “magnetic influence” and “hypnosis” of the crowd, allows them to live with self-confident anger and in infinitely amplified fear of the status quo. Internal solidarity among Trump supporters has not abated over time; if anything, it has steadily strengthened in response to the numerous obstacles their leader faces. Every charge against Trump and instance of social media censorship he faces has helped bolster his supporters’ morale.
The Actions and Inactions of the Governors and the Elite
In all fairness, this writer believes there are praiseworthy aspects to Biden’s domestic and foreign economic policies and governance. His relatively scientific approach to handling the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act introduced, his legislating and advocacy on behalf of the disadvantaged, his positive attitude on addressing climate change, and even his (from the American perspective) diplomacy, such as bringing the U.S. and Europe closer together – such are his contributions. Compared to his predecessor, Biden has a lot more respect for the American institutional order. But the “auditors” of the U.S. election system are not the think tanks, the scholars, or the experts; nor are they the international community, the climate change advocates, or yours truly. They are the American people — or more accurately, the swing voters in dozens of swing counties across several battleground states.
From a governance perspective, Biden’s presidential race is a tough one for several reasons. As Democratic Party aide James Carville remarked on Bill Clinton’s election strategy in 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid,” showing how vitally important the economy is. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll showed that as many as 63% of respondents put “the economy/my personal economic situation” at the top of their priorities, with 11% even declaring that this was the “only issue” they really cared about. The second most important issue was government efforts to reduce crime (55%), and the third was “elites interfering with your freedom” (51%), with protecting abortion access and restricting gun access in fourth and fifth place, respectively. This ranking reflects indirect criticism of those who advocate that post-materialist values have become the dominant voice in Western politics in the 21st century. It is not inevitable that people’s choices between the “material” (wealth, security) and the “immaterial” (social justice, freedom) will, in time, bend toward the “immaterial” and away from the “material.” In a climate of instability and straitened personal financial circumstances, the “material” may well become more decisive than the “post-material.”
CNBC’s All-America Economic Survey in December showed that as many as 62% of respondents were dissatisfied with Biden’s economic policies. But even though inflation was curbed under the Fed’s tight monetary policy last year, it is still putting the majority of grassroots supporters and middle-class families in the U.S. under enormous financial pressure.
While greater automation and structural adjustments improved the bargaining positions of blue-collar workers during the pandemic, low-level white-collar and service-sector workers faced the double nightmare of falling wages and job insecurity. The wave of resignations that began in 2021 is a sign that, at a time when wages are stagnating and living costs are rising, the labor market is no longer anything to write home about in the eyes of those working in the service sector, but particularly for young workers. What people are looking for is not just employment, but jobs with room for growth and adequate remuneration packages. The service sector was hit hard by the pandemic lockdown and changing consumer habits, and despite Biden’s intention to boost domestic employment through big government-led industrial policies, this approach has attracted many capitalist critics, saying that one cannot have one’s cake and eat it, too.
Of course, governance problems are not limited to differences in policy lines, they include contradictions in values. The foreign policy ethic within the Democratic Party is one of the dilemmas and entanglements that have increasingly alienated the party’s grassroots supporters. Take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Russia-Ukraine war, for example. On the one hand, Biden must win over both young, pro-Palestinian progressives and Arab and Muslim voters, and on the other hand, he has to get on the good side of traditional business financiers who have clear affinities for Israel, not to mention having to settle factional rivalries, including those between the eight-member progressive “Squad” and the Democratic Party mainstream. Close to two-thirds of Democratic supporters believe that the U.S. should continue to provide aid to Ukraine, but on the Russia-Ukraine and Israeli-Palestinian issues, an anti-war voice is rising among young left-leaning circles and swing voters. It is this “anti-warism,” and the anti-establishment ideology to which it extends, that has indirectly led to the rise of presidential candidates such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and philosopher Cornel West.
The surge in popularity that Trump is currently enjoying is also closely linked to the collapse of the Republican elite. Ever since the party’s primaries kicked off, Republican candidates have broadly split into “anti-Trump” and “pro-Trump” camps. Several rival gangs have emerged within the “anti-Trump” camp, including the uncharismatic Mike Pence, the unremarkable and excessively affable Chris Christie, the conceited but otherwise fairly Trumpian Ron DeSantis, and Nikki Haley, who at the time of this article was still fighting the good fight. Haley represents the deep-rooted Republican “establishment” consortia, financiers, and the gentry — but they are not capable of fighting Trump as a united front, and Haley is incapable of gaining the general trust of the Republican Party.
On the other hand, the “pro-Trump” forces include Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and pharmaceutical tycoon Vivek Ramaswamy, both of whom were originally looking to win Trump’s favor through their performances in the primaries. Whether it is the “no Trump” camp and its ulterior motives or the “pro-Trump” camp adding fuel to the fire, all factors point to the Republican establishment once again declaring Trump its presidential nominee. A year of smooth sailing for the U.S. this is not.
The author is an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Philosophy and a research fellow at its Centre on Contemporary China and the World.