Wednesday, January 20, 2021, was a bright day. The inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States seemed to mark the end of the dysfunctional period of Donald Trump. The transition comes amid powerful calls to overcome the bitterness of polarized politics, appealing to the better angels of a battered national ego and levitating from Amanda Gorman’s pristine poetics. The relief that day provided may have ushered for a majority of Americans a perception that the country is coming back to its senses. Even that American exceptionalism — the notion that the United States, for whatever reason, is unique as a nation — is back on its feet. But is it really?
Those like myself who grew up in Venezuela, a country where, in the second half of the 20th century, democracy had a great shot for some four decades until it fell into the arms of a populist lieutenant colonel, understand that the era of anger politics in America may not be over just yet. Historians who interpret these tumultuous times probably ponder whether American exceptionalism held true only until an earlier Wednesday, the ill-fated January 6, which witnessed the storming of the US Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters seeking to reverse the result of the 2020 presidential election. That fateful day, the light on the hill was dimmed. It might have been only for a short period, but it was enough. That light may be flickering again, but we all know that things will not be exactly back to normal, not like they used to be.
Donald Trump: The Worst Kind of Populist
As exceptionalism faltered, it gave way to one of the most pernicious attempts at unmaking the great promise of American democracy: that it can improve itself around the ideals of justice, individual freedom, equality and the rule of law. But, more importantly, that power transitions always take place peacefully. It may have been Alexis de Tocqueville who coined the notion of America’s exceptionalism, but as the United States was winning the race to first world power, it acquired a more grounded sense. Due to its origin out of revolution, its civic religion of democracy, its strong individualism and its egalitarianism, the United States was spared the vagaries of socialism and class struggle that characterized other Western democracies.
Until the first decade of the 21st century, the US was granted a stable political system where the rule of law reigns and federalism is the major institutional cement holding it all together. So what happened? Why was the latest political transfer of power not entirely peaceful?
The Past Coming to Haunt Us
As well as the notion of exceptionalism born in the 19th century, the responses may be also ingrained in the past. One is the racial stain that marked the making of the nation from its beginning. The US has come a long way in overcoming the racial atrocities of its past, their resolution first postponed and then frozen for decades under the Jim Crow status quo. The civil rights movement broke that status quo, allowing for a new beginning, one that remade the Americans’ perception of themselves, now made up of more diverse images.
But as the movement faded in its strength, the normalcy of politics only made possible a slower overcoming of the realities of racial segregation. Be it the grim realities of urban America — where most blacks were concentrated in rundown inner cities while the suburbs provided the new image of the affluent and still dominant white majority — or the astonishing rate of imprisonment of African Americans, for decades social segregation seemed to carry the way. In the midst of these changes, white America still dominated the cultural scene and personified the nation, because yes, whites were still a majority census after census — until they ceased to be.
Strangely enough, it was the world of marketing and advertisement, with its capacity to capture the subtle changes in the composition of society, that started speaking a different language, talking to and about a growingly diverse society. The warning cry of this new reality and the perils it could involve for a nation born of a predominant Anglo tradition was provided by no less than Samuel Huntington. In his latest book, with a title that speaks loudly, “Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity,” Huntington contended that the America born from its early tradition was about to be lost because of the unstoppable migration trends, especially from Latin America, which created a new ethnic composition that menaced making the country another Brazil. In the last analysis, one could argue that Huntington was the intellectual voice of today’s white supremacists.
The new realities of ethnic transition depicted by Huntington and experienced by ordinary Americans in their daily lives percolated to society at large, as a rumor. But when Barack Obama won the 2008 election, all hell broke loose. The deindustrialization of the Midwest, the cultural isolation of rural America and the financial crisis of 2007 were too strong a cocktail. The most powerful nation on earth began to show feet of clay. The main political phenomenon of those years was not the leadership of an African American head of state, which seemed logical in that it emerged from a diverse society. It was the Tea Party, the massive movement that repealed, if not in direct words then at least in its symbols and innuendo, the aggiornamento of American politics to its new social realities.
Without admitting it openly, the Tea Party incarnated the revulsion of white America in facing a country that it interpreted as losing its heritage — exactly what Huntington had feared. No wonder why the birthers’ claim rang a loud bell for the part of America that Hillary Clinton mischaracterized as the “basket of deplorables.” In comes Trump with his “Bring Back White America” — the real subtext of “Make America Great Again” — and the rest is history.
Trump, Polarization, Populism
America may have been spared socialism in the 20th century — the real one, not the watered-down system Bernie Sanders chose to sell us — but it couldn’t avoid populism. The prominent French political scientist Pierre Rosanvallon has argued that the 21st century is the century of populism. There may have been precedents in both in Europe and in the US, and especially in 20th-century Latin America, but the recent erosion of liberal democracy around the world has prompted the emergence of a new breed of populism. It translates into the political body as alternative expressions of the discontented masses around charismatic leaders who reject the status quo, who seek a direct connection with their followers (today mainly through social media) and who storm the world of politics with their rhetoric of hatred. The US has not only proved to be susceptible to this brand of populism, but has experienced it on a dramatic scale.
Trump certainly surfed the waves created by the Tea Party, but his populist revolt was only made possible because of the advent of a second and more recent trend: polarization. Polarization, along with the outburst of political emotions, is the main instrument of populism, one that turns internal adversaries into irreconcilable enemies. While Hugo Chavez, and some of his followers in Latin America, led the people against the oligarchy, in the US, it came to be the people against the “deep state” or the Washington “swamp.”
Ironically, the advent of this new brand of polarization in American politics may have been the result of the collapse of communism. As film-maker Ken Burns suggested in a recent interview, as communism was riding its way to the dustbin of history, America lost the common enemy uniting the country, the one that had strengthened its vision as an exceptional nation, the cradle of liberty and the dominant power of the 20th century. In a twist of history, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the notion of the enemy in politics coined by Carl Schmitt, a political scientist of the Third Reich, came back to haunt us right when we thought the world was ready for an unhinged future of democracy and freedom.
The “enemy” shifted from external to internal forces, pushing the US into a tumultuous political era. With the alleged 30,000 lies spilled over America in his four-year tenure and riding on the back of the Tea Party wave, Trump more than anyone has helped create the current divide between Republicans and Democrats. Anyone who watched the debate in the House around the second impeachment of Donald Trump certainly perceived not only the abyss between the parties but also the rancor, bringing into the Chamber of Representatives the nastiness and the delusion that transpired in the aftermath of the election.
America will never fully restore its perception as an exceptional nation. It ought to claim a different status, that of a powerful survivor of the 21st-century populist wave. But of course, that is still something hanging in the air. Perhaps President Biden will be the best antidote to the populist pandemic corroding the world. I certainly hope he is.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.