The decline of the USA, a divided nation and polarization are enduring realities that will be grist to the mill for certain politicians.
The unexpected election of Donald Trump in 2016 was a historic turning point for the USA and for the world in general. America saw a renewal of protectionism, nationalism and isolationism that put an end to a period of liberal globalization that had been badly weakened by the 2008 crash. The 2020 election and the announcement of Joe Biden’s victory – contested at law by Donald Trump – are liable to considerable misinterpretation and could foster dangerous illusions about America returning to the way it was in 1945, an end to populism and democracy’s resilience.
Donald Trump’s mandate threw a harsh light on the true nature of populism. One good point was that it alerted us to the impoverishment of the middle classes in developed countries, to the ravages of deindustrialization, and to the threat posed by China; however, it provided no answer to any of these. Above all, it undermined the foundations of democracy by flaunting his scorn for the Constitution, his desire to politicize all the institutions – justice, the armed forced, the FED… – and his maintenance of a climate of civil war. The election campaign underlined the ambiguous attitude of populist leaders towards the sovereignty of the people as exercised in their vote – something such leaders incessantly hold up as primordial but which they only recognize when the vote is in their favor.
The fall of Donald Trump also underlines the perverse links that united him to the leaders of authoritarian nations that hold democracy to be their enemy. Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdogan and Mohammed Ben Salman are aware that they have lost their greatest ally, whose whims and inconsistencies discredited freedom and legitimized démocratures [a démocrature = a combination of democracy and dictatorship].
Having lost their sponsor, they risk finding themselves increasingly in competition with and opposition to each other. Within democracies, populist leaders, already weakened by their disastrous management of the epidemic and the recession, are finding themselves isolated.
However, Donald Trump’s defeat is purely relative. He obtained over 71.5 million votes, which proves how deeply he has taken root in America’s body politic and its society.
He was not so much beaten by Joe Biden as by the epidemic, which shattered his denial of reality and his rabble-rousing.
One can lie to voters with impunity, but not to the Covid virus. Nevertheless, Trumpism will live on after Donald Trump and will weigh heavily on America: protectionism, national decline, a divided country and polarization are long-term realities that will be grist to the mill for certain politicians.
Donald Trump is neither a parenthesis nor an accident. His election was the consequence and not the cause of the existential crisis facing democracy in America. His defeat is a major setback for populism, but has certainly not brought an end to it. The fundamental changes of which he is the product still remain, and have even been amplified by the health and economic crisis, whether it be in the disintegration of the middle classes, mass unemployment and inequality, resentment and polarization, the rise of insecurity and the temptation to use violence, or the mistrust of leaders and democratic institutions. The second wave is therefore just as unavoidable for populism as it is for the Covid-19 epidemic.
This is not the time to celebrate an improbable victory for democracy but to take action in order to reinvent it.
For the USA, this means that, without delay, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will have to set up an effective national strategy to fight the epidemic – a precondition for economic recovery – and, above all, to reconcile a nation that has been torn apart. For Europeans, this means not blocking the building of a more autonomous Europe.
For democracies as a whole, it is an encouragement to rebuild a West extended to include the free nations in Asia in order to stem Chinese expansionism and, above all, to treat the pathologies that made Donald Trump’s election possible and that may lead his imitators to power in the future.
There are four priorities. Firstly, to reunite citizens in a sense of national community by means of a common purpose. Secondly, to decentralize institutions and involve active players in the economy and society –as well as ordinary citizens – in public policies. Thirdly, to rehabilitate the capitalism of production and innovation, as opposed to that of unearned income – in particular, this means regulating the digital sector and dismantling the GAFAM. And finally, to invest hugely in education, which is the main dividing line between populist and democratic voters. The appeal of resentment, anger and violence must be expunged from the heart of every citizen, and this can only be done by educating people in freedom, respect for the rule of law, debate between opposing points of view, and moderation.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 16th November 2020)