Trump a symptom, not cause of U.S. polarization

Socio-political paranoia and division will remain a standout feature of U.S. politics in 2024 and beyond.

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This photo taken on Sept. 28, 2023 shows the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., the United States. (Xinhua/Liu Jie)

With a mix of alarm and dismay, observers have watched as a twice-impeached former president, who is also the first such officeholder to be criminally indicted in 234 years of American history, has risen to the top of the presidential polls. That Donald Trump may return to the White House in January 2025 is a sad reflection of the state of American democracy.

Trump’s populist-nationalist “America First” appeal, though, reaches beyond his outsized and, at times, unhinged personality, and is primarily socio-economic and socio-cultural in nature, and accentuated by America’s peculiar presidential vote-counting method.

At the structural economic level, many of the forces that propelled America’s late-20th century golden economic age — favorable “baby boomer” demographics; the rise in women’s labor market participation; an expansion of tertiary education; a huge increase in household debt — are broadly moving into reverse and will continue to do so over the next quarter century. This has noticeably impacted America’s medium-term growth prospects. Indeed, by some accounts, the United States may be facing its most economically challenging two decades of peacetime national life since the Reconstruction Era of the 1870s.

The deeply uneven distribution of economic growth, furthermore, has punctured a cardinal belief that had underpinned the American Dream — that the next generation would always enjoy greater prosperity than the current one. For many American households, the aspiration for a better life, liberty and pursuit of happiness can no longer be taken for granted. Trump has demagogically capitalized on this darkening national mood by blaming foreign forces, be it regarding trade, immigration or even climate, for America’s ills.

At the socio-economic level, rank inequality stemming from Big Tech’s market concentration and a “winner takes all mentality” plus a stagnation in wage growth — median inflation-adjusted household income barely registered any rise between 2000 and 2015, that is until Trump entered office — has heightened social polarization.

As a growing number of prime-age males, many of whom are white, working-class and without a college degree, withdraw from the labor market, Trump has capitalized on their insecurity and powerlessness by demagogically emphasizing his nativist message: that their way of life, not just their livelihoods, is under threat. He suggests that seeking refuge under his strong leadership and brand of populist nationalism offers them the surest guarantee of safety and prosperity.

That the U.S. economy witnessed its fastest rise in real median wages in many decades during Trump’s presidency, for reasons that had more to do with timing and luck, has also provided Trump an electoral tailwind. And, by contrast, the plateauing of inflation-adjusted wage growth (until very recently) during the Biden administration due to mismanagement of the interest rate cycle has accentuated the impression that Trump is a steadier hand on the (economic) tiller.

Finally, the skewed vote-counting nature of the presidential electoral college, with its rural and Republican-leaning bias, along with the gerrymandering of many House seats, has allowed a more-or-less minority party (the Republicans) to punch above its weight in national politics.

No Republican candidate has secured a majority of the presidential vote over the past three decades except George W. Bush in 2004, yet Republicans have held the White House for considerable periods of time during this period. Trump himself might have retained the presidency in 2020 had a mere 45,000 votes changed hands in the battleground states of Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia, despite his massive seven million popular vote margin of defeat. A less than one percent shift in the popular vote difference could have sealed Biden’s fate.

The electoral college may be quirky, but its consequences are real and damaging. The three Supreme Court justices nominated by popular vote-loser Trump have tilted the balance on the bench, struck down longstanding jurisprudence, and hyper-charged partisan division in America.

Rather than strengthening the system of checks and balances to ensure fairness and integrity, Trump is once again banking on an electoral college-friendly pathway via the Rust Belt and southern states to the White House, peddling anti-trade and anti-globalism grievances to the former and anti-immigrant outrage to the latter.

Socio-political paranoia and division will remain a standout feature of U.S. politics in 2024 and beyond. Even without a demagogue like Trump, American politics would be highly charged and deeply partisan. With Trump in the fray, it will be downright ugly.

And Trump drags his party backwards to its economically populist, socially conservative and geopolitically semi-isolationist roots, adding a dose of white nativist grievances, the implications for the international system will be profound too.

Xinhua News Agency

Founded in 1931, Xinhua News Agency is one of the largest news organizations in the world, with over 10,000 employees across the globe. As the main source of news and information for China, Xinhua plays a key role in shaping the country's media landscape and communicating its perspectives to the world. The agency produces a wide range of content, including text news articles, photos, videos, and social media posts, in both Chinese and English, and its reports are widely used by media organizations around the world. Xinhua also operates several international bureaus, including in key capitals like Washington, D.C., Moscow, and London, to provide in-depth coverage of global events.

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