Donald Trump’s personality disorders shouldn’t block our comprehending why so many Americans voted for him. To better appreciate how stoking politically combustible inequity narratives entrenches South Africa’s poverty, we should consider how this provokes bitter partisanship in the United States.
Many within and beyond US borders have benefited from that country’s decades-old embrace of free trade. These gains came at the expense of traditionally well-paid American factory jobs. Political promises to provide remedies never amounted to much. This reflects creeping acknowledgement that government efforts to grow jobs must advance economic dynamism.
Debates around assisting African-Americans to achieve economic success are older still. The US’s embrace of ‘affirmative action’ to address racial hiring biases goes back to a 1961 executive order by President Kennedy. Views on maintaining racial preferences have become increasingly debatable, as evidence confirms both ongoing workplace discrimination and massive progress.
The left responded by folding legislative redress into a broad progressive agenda where the appealing glow of desirable outcomes outshone evidence-based analysis. It is important that societies recognise the immorality of racial discrimination. It does not however follow that such recognition can serve as the organising principle around which a successful society can be structured.
The US was the first nation founded as a constitutional democracy enshrining the sovereignty of the people. Individual rights were championed; there would be no bowing to kings or queens. Yet the US was born with the original sin of slavery, which was not purged easily or quickly. Some now see an ongoing legacy of inequities, while others see progress echoing the experiences of other ethnic groups which have overcome discrimination and flourished.
The US’s most populous state passed a referendum in the mid-1990s banning racial preferences among college admission criteria. Last November, Californians were presented ballots to overturn that amendment to their state’s constitution. They chose to uphold it by a 57% to 42% margin – while favouring Biden over Trump even more decisively. Voters and legislators in other US states have similarly expressed the view that racial preferences are to be temporary. The US Supreme Court narrowly upheld the constitutionality of racial preferences for college admissions in 2003. Writing for the 5 to 4 majority, Justice O’Connor stated that, ‘25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary’.
The 21st century began with internet behemoths grabbing huge chunks of traditional media companies’ revenues. Many went out of business or were bought cheaply amid waves of job losses. Ostensibly centrist media houses could either invoke survival instincts to pursue a ‘defined’ audience or offer more balanced reporting to a shrinking centre. Journalists, along with college professors, are among America’s most progressive professionals. As his extremist supporters provoked off-putting headlines, the legitimate grievances of most of Trump’s supporters remained sidelined.
Consider a US factory worker’s perspective. His elected leaders intentionally sacrificed his interests for the greater good. The largest beneficiary was Communist China, which is now aggressively seeking to undermine the predominantly democratic world order to advance its regional hegemony – and authoritarianism generally.
Disadvantaged US workers are to accept that government retraining and job assistance programmes don’t really work and that they must fend for themselves. Yet the broadly accepted view that affirmative action programmes would be phased out was being challenged. A progressive group supported a position where African-Americans enjoyed protections indefinitely.
Trump’s 2016 campaign proposed building a US-Mexico border wall, countering China’s unfair trade practices, and ‘making America great’. The wall project and appeals to traditional American values were symbolic responses to legitimate interests which had been deplatformed. Trump was ahead of the pundits regarding China. Democrats are now no less leery of China’s aims than Republicans.
Trump’s electoral tallies vastly exceeded the number of US factory workers, as many voters couldn’t reconcile progressive ideals with traditional American values or its success impulses. Progressive elites advocated for supporting a racial group indefinitely, while abandoning those who had been set back harshly by policy choices benefiting so many others.
Liberal democracies are designed to balance the interests of various groups within diverse societies. Many progressives today presume that values – their values – should override other people’s interests. Growing awareness that China’s leaders seek to exploit such western indulgences helped keep Trump in the 2020 contest.
Disparaging legitimate grievances
The media’s and the elites’ dismissal of the legitimate grievances of factory workers reminds one of conscripted soldiers returning from Vietnam being spat upon in the 1960s. Progressives have become artfully assertive at framing politics around values that strike many Americans as dishonest and unpatriotic. Having Trump continuing his serial lying from the Oval Office as part of a divided government for a divided people seemed, to many, better than having progressives control both legislative houses and the presidency.
It almost seems that Trump has been mocking how twisted America’s national dialogue has become. If one can ignore Trump’s utterances and tweets, many of his policies can appear reasonable. While managing not to start any wars, Trump helped extend a long economic expansion into the longest on record. Black unemployment hit an all-time low. His Covid press conferences were frequently disasters but his administration actively supported vaccine development, approval and distribution preparation.
Irrespective of how we see him or his politics, it is worth considering why so many people voted for Trump. Depicting desirable outcomes as moral requirements erodes national cohesion while undermining individual initiative, at the expense of broad prosperity. Trump offered a blunt rebuttal.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR
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