[Column] The Trump era is not over

Posted on : 2020-11-11 17:24 KST Modified on : 2020-11-11 17:24 KST
The forces of hate behind the US president’s rise have been building for a long time
Supporters of US President Donald Trump wait for the presidential election results in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Nov. 6. (AP/Yonhap News)
Supporters of US President Donald Trump wait for the presidential election results in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Nov. 6. (AP/Yonhap News)

With Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s victory increasingly certain in a US presidential election that captivated the entire world, many are looking to the “post-Trump” era. Observers are asking questions about Biden’s potential policies, who will constitute the US’ new “power elite,” what effects this will have on South Korea and inter-Korean relations, and how the US and the rest of the world will change.

But before rashly proclaiming an end to the Trump era, we need to reflect on how it all became possible and who bears responsibility for the hatred and violence that erupted in the US during his term, the fear and discrimination, the destruction of democracy and the rule of law, and the collapse of the public state and the privatization of power.

The forces that gave birth to the Trump era and propped it up will remain in place long after Trump has left the White House. If we forget about that underbelly after Trump is out of office, we may soon see the emergence of another Trump by another name.

We must beware of the narrative that demonizes Trump and treats him as the root of all evil. Liberal intellectuals, the US media, and mainstream voices in Western Europe have been candid about their disgust for Trump. But we should soberly ponder the fact that Trump, a figure without even a modicum of morality and character, was supported by half of Americans.

Let’s review the world before Trump’s election. The collapse of the US mortgage industry in 2007, the global financial crisis in 2008, and the Southern Europe debt crisis in 2009 represented a painful time during which countless members of the low and middle classes were driven into bankruptcy, unemployment, and poverty.

The protests that arose in 60 Spanish cities in May 2011 were led by Los Indignados (“The Indignant”) under the slogan of taking back democracy from the hands of the politicians and bankers. The Occupy Wall Street protests that swept the US in the fall of that year underlined the conflict between the 99% and the 1%. All that predated Trump.

The Trump era began with the splendid reputation of democratic politics smeared by its hypocritical collusion with the capitalists, bankers, and speculators. But unfortunately, that led not to the oppressed rebelling and seeking to make the world better, but rather to disillusionment with everything that is good and beautiful and proper.

That allowed the filthy dregs of society to bubble to the surface: white supremacy, misogyny, bigoted violence perpetrated with the blessing of the powers that be, the destruction of democratic norms and tolerance, abuse of power in violation of the rule of law, a post-truth political structure, scorn for morality, and extreme hate speech. As all those destructive forces arose, the person who provoked and marshaled those forces and converted them into political resources was none other than Trump.

Strictly speaking, it was not Trump himself who butchered American democracy and women, blacks, and immigrants from Latin America, but Trumpian forces who partnered with him in that butchery. What were those forces? By and large, they were middle-class whites and male factory workers. Several threads of inequality, including race, gender, and class, are interwoven here. The rising status of marginalized groups such as blacks, women, and immigrants has launched a backlash and triggered attacks against them.

It was largely due to the power of populist politics that such social factors could lead to the political change represented by a Trump administration. The belief in popular sovereignty is at the foundation of modern democratic politics. But demagogues seize power by stirring up the emotions of the masses while destroying the rules of democratic systems — something that Trump excelled at.

Trump’s popularity required collaborators inside political system

But we can’t ignore the fact that the Trump era required a large number of collaborators inside the current system. Opportunists among American conservatives were an indispensable component of the Trump system. While they sometimes tried to preserve their dignity by standing up to Trump, they have been only too willing to collaborate in the destruction of democracy in order to prevent Democrats and progressives from coming to power.

Thus, the Trump era has had many accomplices — progressives who allowed inequality to worsen, working-class men and middle-class whites who took part in social exclusion, and conservatives who helped undermine democracy for their own advantage. Since this larger network of accomplices is still alive and well, the Trump era isn’t over.

What about South Korea? The conflict between progressives and conservatives is intensifying, vulnerable members of society lack the strength to defend themselves, and workers often lose all human dignity under the barbarity of capitalism, with the victims forced to endure their rage alone, without any community in which to take comfort or any labor unions to defend their interests. Is Korean democracy today in good shape?

By Shin Jin-wook, professor of sociology at Chung-Ang University

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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