Donald Trump’s election victory as US president four years ago owed largely to two things that may be missing today. This therefore seems to have changed the alchemy of American power and puts US international policy in a delicate position.
One of the elements was voters’ attraction to Trump as a “man against the system”, compared to the “system” personified by Hillary Clinton, wife of a former president and connected to many of the country’s important interests. A vote for Trump was also meant to be a slap in the face of a certain US establishment.
Today, however, Trump himself is the system and he represents everything that doesn’t work in the system so appealing to an anti-establishment vote would likely fail.
Another important source of support for Trump came from deeply traditionalist America, one unsettled by the loss of identity caused by the arrival of new immigrants, and one alarmed by a world order that they do not understand in which the US seems to impoverish instead of enrich them. This consensus may have already been undermined by the ongoing crisis and could break further in the coming months.
With about 40 million unemployed, about 100,000 deaths from Covid-19 (which by November could be 150,000–200,000 or more), the largest racial unrest since the Vietnam War and the biggest economic crisis in the history of capitalism, how many of Trump’s old voters will support him during the next election in November? How will he win?
During the protests, the US stock exchange whipsawed but held. That may mean confidence for Trump, but it could also signal confidence in his rival Joe Biden, who now leads by 10% in the polls.
The largely peaceful protests over the police killing of an African American show that America still feels the racial wound.
These demonstrations, attacks on shops and attendant violence are the modern bread riots described in Manzoni’s novel The Betrothed, where the author tells of the outcomes of the plague in Milan in the 17th century. They are the frustration, the desperate poverty of being excluded from all hope and the cannon fodder of the crisis.
In fact, Covid-19 deaths have particularly hit the most destitute part of the population, those who do not have a house in the countryside in which to quarantine, those who have little or no access to health care, and those who today have lost their jobs or have a very precarious one.
Now they have nothing to lose. With the end of many legal or illegal jobs (because Covid-19 also hit the illegal economy), for some the attacks on stores protected under the guise of a “racial riot” is not just anger but also a way of life.
Crossing the Rubicon
In this situation, the announcement of deploying troops to restore order was always likely to be a risky move. Soldiers are often recruited among the disenfranchised, where a career in the army is portrayed as a dignified way out of poverty. So deploying troops against civilians could further split the United States.
US soldiers are traditionally the instrument of the state, not the government, and aimed against an external threat. For this reason, they have not been used in the US for many years.
If they intervene today, they risk becoming an instrument of this government against a part of its own population. That is, they actually would take sides in the political debate. They’d become partisan, of a party, not of the state in its general interest.
In China, the relationship between the army and the ruling Communist Party has been at the center of a very heated internal debate over the years, particularly surrounding the intervention of troops against student demonstrators in Tiananmen in 1989.
Of course, everything is very different in America. But it is worth remembering that the Chinese debate took place when in fact the Party and army were created and developed in an integrated way during the revolutionary war in the 1930s and 1940s. Even then, many soldiers felt uneasy cracking down on students and common people to protect the Party
In America, however, political parties and the army have always been separate, and the army has been a point of national unity beyond partisan divisions.
If, as seems clear now, US troops are reluctant to intervene, the president who ordered their intervention will become weaker if he is not obeyed. If the soldiers were actually deployed, then this obviously would create a dangerous split between the army and the people.
In a way, the intervention of the army against the demonstrators, backed by the opposition, could look like Caesar crossing the Rubicon with his army ready to crush the opposition in Rome.
Yet this time troops could be disloyal to Caesar. Some 40% of the military is black, so they objectively sympathize with the cause against racism – and so do many of their white comrades. Finally, with any use of the military, there will be friction between troops and local authorities who may or may not support the intervention of the military.
Protests also about China
This isn’t just about America, though. Over the past two years there has been an increasingly rapid slide toward a hardline US-China confrontation that is changing the global political balance.
The idea of Brexit, for example, was based on the assumption of fluid and positive relations between the US, EU and China. In this triangle, the UK, freer from certain European constraints, could have played a special role as a great facilitator.
But the gradual flattening of the US-China confrontation is forcing the EU and UK to choose sides. The EU will therefore increasingly side with the US and, for many reasons, the UK could be more useful to itself and others within the EU than outside.
Moreover, especially in the context of a confrontation with China, the US cannot appear “illiberal” because it would lose one of its most important weapons with Beijing: the appeal of its founding liberal values. They are, for example, the defense of freedom and favor of fair justice, and not in defense of power and the rich.
About 50 years ago, America and the West lost at least partial moral superiority due to the demonstrations against the Vietnam War. The protests were an important element that prompted the withdrawal of troops from Indochina. This was a very dangerous and delicate time in the Cold War, when the West was afraid of losing everything.
US president Richard Nixon’s first agreement with China in the early 1970s and US support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets helped to reverse the situation.
So how will a divisive president unite America and its allies over China now? Either Trump changes and manages to win the support of the other half of the country, or the country needs another president who can. But could the US end up with a lame duck president now and in the future if Trump is re-elected?
There is suspicion in America that Trump is willing to violate the rules of the democratic game. Trump has a burning desire to be re-elected. In his mind, defeat would lead to the dismantlement of the “Trump Organization” and his possible prosecution and imprisonment.
Faced with a choice between sabotaging American democracy or a future spent in and out of courtrooms, it is clear where Trump’s instincts would lie. It would be up to others to stop him.
But even if Trump is defeated the “Trumpism” mindset of anti-system traditionalism could endure and become more radicalized. The American establishment must therefore speak with those who feel outside of the“mainstream – the excluded, the marginalized and those who feel kinship with impoverished classes of the big cities.
“Anti-Trump” factions began the narrative that China wants Trump’s re-election because he is a divisive president and weakens America in comparison with China.
This narrative could be risky as it exacerbates the tensions and bilateral differences among both anti-Trumpers and also Trumpians, both of which will want to prove they are more “anti-communist” than the other.
Beyond the divisions over Trump, there is a general consensus that the whole series of recent American misfortunes began with the arrival of the virus from China.
This article originally appeared in Settmana News. Asia Times is grateful for permission to republish it.