Having won over 74 million votes in the 2020 presidential election, there is little doubt that Donald Trump has resonated with a big chunk of the American population. The thousands of people turning out in support of Trump’s false claim of being cheated out of the presidency on January 6 is a testament to that claim.
However, what exactly did Trump do to garner such “cult-like” worship? It is public knowledge that the outgoing president’s foreign and domestic policies, respectively, had alienated friends and foes alike, created a divided America, exacerbated the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic crisis, and destabilized civil society.
One answer is that Trump was able to exploit growing anti-globalization and anti-establishment sentiments that have spread across the West, particularly in the US.
In the decades earlier, American enterprises, with the blessing of the political establishment, decided on an economic structural change that relocated low-technology and polluting manufacturing abroad and automated jobs at home.
The decision actually made economic sense because American firms were able to reduce production costs, minimize labor relations issues and limit environmental protection costs. Lower import prices raised America’s standard of living, kept inflation in check and fermented an attractive investment climate.
But there were many associated problems for America, including the widening of the rich-poor gap and the hollowing out manufacturing and loss of related jobs, to name a couple.
This was, in large part, because neither government nor business provided adequate job-retraining programs to offer alternative employment opportunities to the displaced workers whose jobs were exported overseas or automated. This fueled anger and resentment against the American establishment and countries that American workers felt stole their jobs.
Trump came into the picture at a very opportune time, touting himself as an anti-establishment presidential candidate in the 2016 election cycle. He successfully exploited the emotion of less-educated white Americans by accusing the establishment of abandoning America and other countries, China in particular, of “eating America’s lunch.”
Trump also played the anti-immigration card, exaggerating if not falsely accusing non-white immigrants of taking white American jobs and exacerbating crime levels, just to name a few. The president called Mexicans “rapists” and “drug dealers.”
That is, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan convinced many Americans that he was the “messiah” whom America needed at that moment in time, although the policy literally caused the opposite effect.
The trade war against China, for example, slowed economic growth to a crawl from 3.2% in 2018 to around 2.5% in 2019. Blaming China for the Covid-19 pandemic allowed him to do nothing about the virus, culminating in infecting over 23 million, killing over 380,000 Americans and contracting the economy by 5% in 2020.
On the world stage, Trump’s unnecessary provocations against China risked security in the Asia-Pacific and beyond. Turning Obama’s “pivot” to Asia into the “Indo-Pacific” strategy that aimed to create an “Asian NATO” alarmed China, prompting it to develop, produce and install more advanced military assets on territories within its “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea.
Playing the “Taiwan card” of deliberately poking China resulted in frequent Chinese military exercises above and in the Taiwan Strait, unnerving the island’s residents. Pressuring the UK, France and Germany to send warships to join US “freedom of navigation operations” in the South China Sea could expand a US-China military conflict into a global one.
If a US intelligence study indicating that the US might not win a war against China had not emerged, Trump might have sunk the US-China relationship altogether lower.
Against this backdrop, the world cannot afford another four years of Trump or “Trumpism” if it resembles the first four.
The escalation of economic, technological and geopolitical conflicts with China would likely put the two superpowers on a direct collision course, wreaking havoc on the world economy and potentially causing unthinkable losses of human lives and property on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.
Fortunately, the world can now breathe a certain sigh of relief that Trump has been tossed out of office by the wisdom of the majority of Americans, at least for the next four years. The US President-elect Joe Biden is indicating a different US foreign policy direction, seeking rapprochement with China and other countries.
It will be in the US’ national interests if Biden follows through with his “cooperative” stances. Otherwise, Trumpism might return to the US even stronger in 2024.