Trumpism and the Predicament of American Democracy
By Yongnian Zheng

Trumpism and the Predicament of American Democracy

Mar. 24, 2016  |     |  0 comments

In the ongoing presidential primaries in the US, observers in the US and around the world have been taken aback by the violence that has been sparked by the intense competition between the candidates. In a few of Republican candidate Donald Trump's rallies, there were clashes and even skirmishes between protestors and supporters. The violent scenes were in sharp contrast to the "gold standard" of American democracy that people have come to know.

Criticism has been leveled at the angry words spewed by Trump that was said to have been the cause of the violence. US President Barack Obama commented on this at an event, noting that candidates running for public office should focus on making the US better, and that there should not be "insults and schoolyard taunts and manufacturing facts," nor "divisiveness along the lines of race and faith, certainly not violence against other Americans." ("Obama urges candidates," 2016).

Since the start of the race, Trump has ignored the rules of the American establishment. His heated remarks are totally out of sync with the "politically-correct" mantra. Despite the criticism, Trump remains unrepentant and has even won over more supporters. Anti-Trump camps fear that he will lead the US down the road of hatred and fear. The Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has accused Trump of committing "political arson." She said: "The ugly, divisive rhetoric we are hearing from Donald Trump and the encouragement of violence and aggression is wrong, and it's dangerous." (Merica, 2016)

Some politicians have likened Trump to America’s version of Third World "strongmen," while more and more protesters are seeing him as America’s Hitler.

Trump and his supporters have their reasons. They feel that they are more patriotic than their critics, and they are worried that if US politics does not go through a revolution, they will lose their beloved country. Hence they hope that Trump the political outsider will be elected and radically change America's politics. Trump has said that he is not responsible for the violent clashes, and has pointed his fingers instead at his opposition. His supporters like him for being frank and real, and for being their voice.

Observers have been quick to point out that this violence-tinged politics is nothing like the US has seen. They should not be surprised at the turn of events. The trend was set with the rise of the "Tea Party" a few years ago, and it has only begun to rear its ugly head. In the words of Francis Fukuyama, US politics has changed from "democracy" to "vetocracy." The two parties, unable to reach any consensus, have been vetoing each other in the US Congress and have ultimately achieved nothing. The violence seen in the presidential race is just a manifestation of the duels in Congress.

The root of the violence lies in the divisive politics of the US. The protesters at Trump's Chicago rally were also supporters of Democrat Bernie Sanders; hence you can't blame Trump for openly rebuking the Sanders camp. This phenomenon is not unique to the US; it can also be seen in the radical tone of the UK's Labor Party and France's National Front. As the US has always been the model of Western democracy, it is no wonder that people have been startled by this turn of events.

It has been pointed out by many observers that the violence is a representation of the anger felt by the US middle class. Why are they angry? To put it simply, there has been an upheaval in the economic lifelines of the middle class.

In the short span of a few decades, the US and the Western economies have developed a widening wealth gap, with a small number of people becoming richer and more affluent, and the majority of people becoming poorer and facing hardship. It is thus not difficult to understand the uproar that the book, Capital in the Twenty First Century, written by the French economist Thomas Piketty, has caused in the West, especially the US.

The combined wealth of those in Forbes' list of America's 400 richest people in 2015 is more than the combined total of America's middle to lower classes (Collins & Hoxie, 2015). Research by the Economic Policy Institute shows that this growing income gap is not just the sole cause of a divided society, and that the rich-poor gulf between White Americans, African Americans, and Hispanic Americans in the US is even greater. The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of government data from 2009 (Kochhar, Fry, & Taylor, 2011).

Issues like the rich-poor gap and the racial divide are deeply rooted in American society. In the past, ensuing problems were either solved or suppressed, but now they are bubbling to the surface. So why was there a seeming calm in the past?

Except for a few cool-headed scholars, not many people are analyzing what has gone wrong with the US and no politician has done anything to fix the political system. 

Firstly, during the economic boom times, the US had a large middle class and the two political parties were restricted by it. Although the Democrats and the Republicans were left-leaning and right-leaning respectively, they could not veer too far off the path of the middle class. In other words, the large middle class provided the economic base upon which the two parties could see eye to eye. Once this common ground was weakened, there is nothing much to prevent the two parties from going to the extremes.

Secondly, the US has a long tradition of being "politically correct." Although it prides itself as a country where there is freedom of speech, there are some things you may not openly discuss in polite society. Topics like racial fault lines, cultural and religious differences, and even societal divides are taboo, and talking about them can lead to open conflict. However, not talking about them does not mean the problems do not exist. The political system in the US dictates that if an issue is not discussed, it will not become part of the government agenda. Hence, these issues that are being swept under the carpet will only implode sooner or later.

Furthermore, political ideology in the US has become rigid. The US has always viewed itself as the world’s ideal of democracy, and its people believe that their nation is the greatest in the world. Except for a few cool-headed scholars, not many people are analyzing what has gone wrong with the US and no politician has done anything to fix the political system. On the contrary, the US has continued to "preach" democracy to the world in the belief that it is a panacea for all problems.

The US also does not have an opposition voice from outside the country. Western educated academics and the media have been helping the US to perpetuate the "democracy" myth and not many are critical of it. In sharp contrast, while China may not have an opposition party, the West acts as the opposition voice to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Whatever the CCP does comes under the scrutiny of this "opposition party." While the Chinese government might express its unhappiness over this, the criticisms, either right or wrong, do serve as a check to the CCP to avoid some pitfalls.

Trump’s heated words may have incited violence, but what has really provoked the anger of the US middle class are the economic and political systems. According to Karl Marx, the base of a society determines the superstructure. The violent scenes in the US show that, when the political system in the superstructure does not follow the change in the economic base, violence will become inevitable.

Globalization and its ensuing impact on industry are the two causes of the economic upheaval. Since the 1980s, the US has been the main driver of globalization. Flush with capital, globalization has created immense wealth for the US, but it has also resulted in a widening income gap. People who were able to ride the globalization trend have benefited greatly, while those who were not able to have been left behind in its wake. Globalization also means that the movement of old industries out of the US has not always been followed by new industries taking their place. The resulting slowdown in manufacturing has affected the employment structure of the US. The shift towards the finance and digital technology industries has not been able to create enough work and employment for the US middle class. They are caught in between: sectors that traditionally employ a large number of middle class workers are seeing much fewer employment opportunities, while foreigners and the lower classes gobble up jobs at the low-tech end. This has affected their lives adversely, and they are unable to maintain their previous standard of living.

Globalization has also caused an imbalance in the US democratic system, manifested mainly in the economic, political and societal realms. This phenomenon can be explained in mathematical terms. The goal of the "one-man-one-vote" democratic system is "one-man-one-set-of-benefits," albeit with conditions attached. If one wants to have a share of the benefits, one needs to contribute his part. If one cannot contribute his part, the system will be unsustainable. The "one-man-one-vote" democratic system guarantees that there will be "one-man-one-set-of-benefits" because politicians will ensure its continued functioning, otherwise they will not be able to secure the people's votes. However, the "one-man-one-vote" system cannot guarantee that every man will contribute his part. In other words, the democratic system that is based on the premise that "one-man-one-vote" will result in everyone contributing his or her share is unsustainable.

In the US, during the era of elitist democracy, politicians — buoyed up by wealthy corporations — had to play a balancing game between politics and economics. However, in the current era of populist democracy, while the support from corporations remains important, the populist vote has become the most urgent consideration of politicians. This swing towards the voters has adversely affected industry and has resulted in an outflow of corporate money. Globalization is the catalyst of this movement in assets and wealth.

In the age of globalization, while assets and wealth can move out of the country, politics and society can't. A high tax-rate may result in capital leaving the country; but if there is a reduction in social welfare, the society that depends on it will be unhappy and the government will lose its legitimacy. How then do governments maintain their welfare systems? The West has a few common ways, such as taxing the middle class, borrowing (from the people or from other countries), sacrificing the future (i.e., taking care of the old voters while sacrificing the needs of the youth who cannot vote), etc. These are not long term solutions. Taxation has damaged the livelihood of the middle class, as witnessed by the many Western countries going through the middle class crisis. Unlimited borrowing has driven many Western countries into building up debt at hazardous levels. The youth, pushed to the sidelines by the governments so as to woo the older voters, face a bleak future and this is a major reason for their anti-establishment sentiments.

This is the situation in the US today. Where will it go from here? To quote from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, which was published in 1939: "This is the beginning — from 'I' to 'we.' If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into 'I,' and cuts you off forever from the 'we.'"

Steinbeck was talking about the struggles of the poor during the Great Depression. Today the US is facing the wrath of the middle class, upon which American democracy draws its lifeline. How this struggle will unfold, the world awaits.

(Translated by Chean Chian Cheong)


Collins, C, and Hoxie, J. (2015, December 1). Billionaire bonanza: The Forbes 400 and the rest of us. Retrieved from

Kochhar, R., Fry, R. and Taylor, P. (2011, July 26). Wealth gaps rise to record highs between Whites, Blacks, Hispanics. Retrieved from

Merica, D. (2016, March 12). Clinton on Trump's "divisive" rhetoric: "That's political arson". CNN. Retrieved from

Obama urges candidates to reject "insults and schoolyard taunts". (2016, March, 12). PressTV. Retrieved from

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