Across from the criminal courts building where former President Trump turned himself in for arrest (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

United in hatred

America’s crisis of legitimacy

Artillery Row

The Trump political train is back in town — albeit this time the first stop is a courtroom, as opposed to a primary in Iowa. To some he is the last best hope to rebuild the “American Dream”, an ideal and hope that for many has long since been lost. For others, he is a criminal, a fascist and an ever present threat to an imperilled American political system. 

The intensity of the difference between these divergent opinions, amongst others, has fostered a politically charged atmosphere leading to family splits and a substantial increase in polarisation even amongst “leaners”, i.e. people who are ideologically non-committed. Citizens who regularly vote for each party now see the other in more starkly contrasted terms in comparison to the 1990’s.

Both parties’ supporters seem willing to put aside liberal restraints

This is perhaps compounded by Trump’s narrow path to the Presidency. The Trump ideological train was built upon a response to perceived corruption and defeating “special interests”. Trump was the businessman who could stop American decline. His electoral coalition was also tight — never winning the popular vote, he relied upon electoral college math to scrape his way to victory in 2016 against a horribly unpopular Hilary Clinton. Whilst in 2020 Trump made gains in women and the Hispanic community, his base remained solidly made up of non-college educated white voters.

Despite recent polls and a focus on Trump, high levels of democratic antagonism towards the “other side” is nothing new in American politics. From the fight over civil rights in the 60s and 70s, the emergence of Newt Gingrich in the 90s, and the rise of Sarah Palin in 2008, conflict is an age-old tradition in American politics. Some may talk of Trump as being the villain who upset the peace, and there is no doubt he has raised the bar on political hatred, but the uncomfortable truth is there was little real peace to speak of. 

One may say that this is healthy in a democracy. After all, surely democracy should be about differences of opinion? The levels of polarisation are threatening to engulf the political system, however, overwhelming the liberal constraints on democratic will that are necessary for democracy to function. This is true across the political aisle. Whilst Republicans are more likely to want a strong leader free of electoral constraints, Democrats are more likely to agree with a President removing a judge whose decisions go against the “national interest”. Both parties’ supporters seem willing to put aside liberal restraints to achieve what they perceive as best for the country. 

Talk of bridge building in these political conditions could be considered naïve. How can you build bridges when the political opposition are throwing around epithets such as “fascist enabler” or “woke warrior”? It is almost besides the point whether Shadi Hamidst is right when he argues, “And they shouldn’t be believed. An argument about democracy’s imminent death is not an argument about facts. It’s an argument about something that, in a very literal sense, hasn’t actually happened yet.” To a degree, it matters not whether Trump is an existential threat to democracy, but whether people believe it and how strongly they hold this view. 

The “downstream” effects of such attitudes are substantial for both sides. On the right you have the rise of the conspiracy theory network Qanon whose support is now well into the double digits, whilst on the left you have a fear that Trump is about to dispose of every institutional safeguard and turn America into a postmodern third Reich. When politics becomes this polarised, you do not cultivate a healthy atmosphere for competing philosophies to flourish. Instead, the result is a toxic environment where politics is increasingly criminalised under the spectre of a perceived clash of civilisational crisis. 

People are living in a political, social and economic whirlpool

Compounding the partisanship is the lack of trust of institutions and elites across both parties from the grassroots. This is true even amongst those who support a specific party, with over a quarter of voters disapproving of the job both parties are currently doing. Compounded by public trust numbers that are near historic lows, the crisis of American politics is not simply one of partisanship but one of legitimacy and public trust. The rise of outsiders in politics is usually a symbol of the failure of elites to accurately represent public will. Trump and “the squad” cannot be analysed in a vacuum but as a representation of wider political discontent. 

Rather than creating a space for genuine alternative modes of discussion to strengthen civil society, we now have elite groups trying to guide specific social and economic models for the rest of society. Polling shows widespread discontent across the populace about the prospect of their lives in the personal as well as the social realm. This again is not a new problem. In 1997 Christopher Lasch argued in The Revolt of the Elites, “It is not just that the masses have lost interest in revolution; their political instincts are demonstrably more conservative than those of their self-appointed spokesmen and would-be liberators.” Lasch’s whole book could have been written today. 

The breaking down of civil society that used to knit citizens together has been replaced by a focus on a hard nosed desire to rise to the top. Rather than challenging the system itself, activist groups are now demanding increased entry into the already existing system. Ignoring that only so many people can join the “meritocratic elite”, the middle of America has been bottomed out and ignored. Perhaps, as Toby Buckle has argued, Trump supporters are not the poorest, but they are the left behind and forgotten, watching their incomes tighten and prospects slowly slip away. 

Will Sommer’s book on Qanon, Trust The Plan, speaks to a vulnerable population that has lost previously strong social organisations. People are living in a political, social and economic whirlpool. America has produced an unwell, unhappy population whose politics is guided by an intra elite competition that increasingly fails to speak to the masses. The political fallout from this combination was predictable and a long time coming. Trump’s emergence is merely the most dynamic and unpredictable outcome of the social, economic and political context that already existed. Whatever the truth of Trump may be, one thing is certain: there is a legitimacy crisis in American politics that won’t end with him. 

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