This election year will bring many surprises, and the outcome of the confrontation between Trump and the Democratic elites is far from a foregone conclusion. There is no clarity as to whether a movement from the oligarchy to a strong and responsible state is possible. In the absence of leaders, and amid the steady dynamics of protests and sympathy from the establishment, the modern social upsurge may well end in strengthening the old system, writes Valdai Club expert Andrei Tsygankov.
This election year, Donald Trump has unexpectedly faced three powerful challenges – the coronavirus, an economic downturn, and massive racial unrest. All three are being used by his political opponents. Posts are spread online pointing the finger at the “outcomes” of Trump’s time in office: more than 100 thousand dead from the virus, 40 million unemployed and social protests nationwide.
Crisis of the oligarchy
This picture correlates poorly with reality. The point is not only that Trump is not responsible for the emergence of the virus, but that under quarantine conditions an economic recovery is impossible and the racial protests began in a state controlled by a Democrat. The problem, however, is deeper: the American state itself is in crisis, as evidenced by the election of Trump himself.
In America, serious problems have accumulated in connection with the growth of social inequality and the decline of economic opportunities in society. At the same time, the political elite are busy fighting for power and influence. Because big money has failed to act as a strong, restraining power in the American system, competing oligarchic groups remain extremely active. Broad public participation is not a necessity, but rather the opposite. Elections ensure the rotation of oligarchic groups in power who exercise the prerogatives of the super-rich through the candidates they support. Society is managed through an ideology of national exclusivity, the cultivation of an external threat, social programmes for the poor and law enforcement agencies to neutralise the discontented.
This system was developed during the Cold War, when the Soviet threat was the basis for rallying society in the face of rising military spending and the merger of oligarchic groups with the state. Shortly after the end of World War II, the United States began to dominate the global financial and economic system. The dominance of the dollar to this day has allowed the ruling elites to finance their solution to internal problems: printing money without worrying too much about inflation and external debt.
This system seemed too good to change. Competition, entrepreneurship and relative remoteness from military threats have, in a historically short time period, contributed to the creation of a powerful state. After the Cold War, the American elite decided that they could make their system global. But the 2016 elections showed that significant strata of society are not ready to put up with the plans of the elite. White workers rebelled against the departure of business from the country, the loss of jobs and an influx of immigrants, and the military did not want to protect the global empire. The oligarchic system has failed. Attempts by globalist elites to sabotage Trump’s campaign yielded no results, and an unanticipated businessman-politician came to power.
However, Trump himself was not a solution to problems; instead, he pushed them to the limit. The coronavirus test clearly demonstrated both the weaknesses of his leadership and the imperfection of the oligarchic system. The president hesitated for several weeks to acknowledge the seriousness of the coronavirus. He also failed to succeed in quickly re-profiling the economy to produce the protective equipment necessary for citizens and doctors. Trump relied on the advice of his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who suggested betting on the private sector. As a result, precious time was lost. It is difficult for an oligarchic state to mobilise resources.
The weakness of the social obligations of the oligarchy was also confirmed. The lack of national health care and its inaccessibility to large segments of society made it difficult for the state to respond to the rapid spread of communicable diseases. At the same time, the high cost of housing, education and other necessary services exacerbated problems. In large cities, many Americans live from paycheck to paycheck, renting apartments rather than owning their own homes. Education, especially high-quality schooling and tertiary education, is also paid. The transition to quarantine in such conditions immediately entailed an aggravation of financial problems.
The oligarchy is not able to solve problems; instead it fills them with money. This is what Barack Obama did, when he led the country out of the financial crisis of 2008. Trump does the same. Trillions of dollars were printed, but it could not stop the spread of the infection or the deaths that ultimately resulted. Minorities and vulnerable groups were particularly affected.
Nations with strong social programmes, a high level of public trust and the ability to mobilise national resources have reacted much more successfully to coronavirus. What unites such different social systems, such as those of Germany, China and South Korea? Simply the fact that are not controlled by oligarchies. Germany and South Korea are examples of decentralised but socially strong states with a high level of trust in society. China is not a social, but a highly centralised, disciplined, and mobilisable state. The introduction of a strict quarantine, the rapid production of the appropriate medical protective equipment, and even the speedy construction of new hospitals proved to be well within the abilities of such a state.
What is ahead?
Today, America has entered a period of critical self-reflection and is questioning the road that it has chosen to take. The election of Trump has awakened society and the elites alike, encouraging them to find new solutions. At the same time, Trump’s nationalism is rejected by many as being incapable of addressing the challenges of social and racial inequality. The goals of creating an autarkic economy, maintaining the position of a military superpower and subjugating the surrounding world to the requirements of the United States are perceived as a return to past centuries.
The realities of the 21st century really differ from those that created the state of the 20th century – repressive, based on privileged strata and exploiting international tension. In the modern world, America has no existential external threats. New information technologies and the globalisation of the world have created unprecedented opportunities for society to participate in social and political life. American society discusses the ideas of reorganising healthcare and education, transforming the electoral system and law enforcement agencies, and rejecting hegemonic foreign policy.
However, Trump’s opponents have not yet proposed new solutions. Their efforts so far have been aimed at discrediting him and ensuring that he is no longer in power, including using special services and Russophobia. Their efforts were in vain, but the economic downturn and the expansion of social protests promise new opportunities. The Democratic establishment seeks to present Trump’s intention to put an end to riots and the robberies accompanying the protests as an attempt to establish a military dictatorship. Trump’s calls to “dominate the street”, warnings of readiness to mobilise the army, and threats to ban left-wing organisations only work in their favour. The impression is reinforced by liberal media reminders of Trump’s personal sympathies for Putin and Kim and constant assurances of the peaceful nature of the protests. Biden, Pelosi, Schumer, and other prominent representatives of the Democratic establishment have not yet made a clear statement condemning the protests.
As a result, Trump’s political influence and control over the army and security forces is weakening. Surveys show that public opinion isn’t behind him: 67% of whites and 88% of black Americans believe that he aggravated rather than relieved racial friction in society. In addition, part of the army has signalled the possibility that it may disobey the orders of the commander-in-chief. In particular, statements were made by influential generals Mattis and Powell against the use of the military to restore public order.
This election year will bring many surprises, and the outcome of the confrontation between Trump and the Democratic elites is far from a foregone conclusion. There is no clarity as to whether a movement from the oligarchy to a strong and responsible state is possible. In the absence of leaders, and amid the steady dynamics of protests and sympathy from the establishment, the modern social upsurge may well end in strengthening the old system. Even the most powerful protests of 1968 did not lead to the expected results. Since then, there have been many protests, including the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the 2011-2012 mass movement against Wall Street, and others. In all cases, the American “spring” was followed by “frosts”. It is difficult to exclude the possibility that this time, in the event of Trump’s defeat, the old establishment will use the trust and goodwill it has accrued to consolidate the position of the global oligarchy. In this case, Biden’s warning “we will be back” in 2019 may turn out to be a reality.