Biden’s oath of office as the 46th President of the United States ended one of the most bizarre political episodes in American history, but problems and divisions in American society remain even after the infamous departure of Donald Trump. Whether Americans succeed to bounce back – economically, culturally and psychologically – depends largely on whether the Democrats, as the leading party on the American left pole, succeeds in reinventing themselves and whether Republicans and fellow citizens follow their example.
Both major political parties in the US are at a crossroads. In the Democratic Party, there is an increasingly powerful movement pulling it to the left, and the Republican Party is still a prisoner of Trump and his right-wing populist movement. In addition to internal pressures in both parties, demographic changes in the US and technological inventions are also calling for transformation, with the emergence of new subjectivities, ways of life, political ideologies, and civilizational challenges.
One of the key factors that will influence the future direction of the Republican Party and the development of American society at this time is the fate of Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate. By urging his supporters to invade the Capitol during a session of Congress, Trump committed a high treason under U.S. law, although many still believe it was (also) an attempted coup, an attempted violent takeover of power. Certainly, this act was unpatriotic, and Trump lost a lot of political capital with it.
On the move are now Republicans in the Senate led by leader Mitch McConnell. To many elected Republican politicians, Trump supporters represent a fundamental electoral base, so they do not want to risk losing support in the next election and, for opportunistic reasons, have not (yet) distanced themselves from Trump or voted in favor of a constitutional charge in the House of Representatives. The decision-making of politicians is based primarily on the logic of a permanent election campaign, where each decision is assessed in terms of the impact on support in public opinion and the possibility of re-election in the next elections.
A patriotic, not to say sacrificial, move by the Republican Party at this point would be to convict Trump in the Senate, preventing him from running again for the presidency of the United States in four years. In order to survive politically, they should offer the electorate a worthy successor, a hero on a conservative policy platform, and convince the base on the ground – with the support of the conservative media – of a new, healthier path. Otherwise, if the Republican Party becomes a platform for Trumpism, then it is probably over with the U.S. as we know it.
The future of the Democratic Party is not stable either. Trump should be a lesson especially for Democrats, said Žižek after his victory in 2016. High voter mobilization in support of Trump should be understood primarily as a revolt of citizens against “rotten” liberalism and Washington’s political elites, whose practice has strayed too far from their ideals. Both were too well personified in 2016 by Hillary Clinton. Prior to Trump’s victory, Bernard Sanders’ political rise was a signal that there was something wrong, that the liberal regime needed a correction – either to the left or to the right. American voters chose the right, in which Žižek saw an opportunity and a necessity for the transformation of political forces on the left pole. Did they succeed?
Not really. At least judging by the last four years, in which they have contributed the lion’s share to the polarization of US society. The toxicity of public discourse and relations between social groups was caused by a combination of Trump’s rhetoric and – crucially – the targetet public’s response to his provocations. Trump’s opponents did not know how to curb their passions, especially the hysterical expression of anger and hatred towards him, and exploiting this weakness was Trump’s strategy which he managed to pull off most consistently.
First and foremost, Trump’s rhetoric was about exploiting the business and reporting logic of the traditional (liberal) media, which has always fallen prey to Trump’s trolling and portrayed him sublimely as a man of bad character in the hunt for (approval) ratings. They summed up his statements, saying “look what the President has indulged in again,” not only helping him spread and strengthen his political messages, but also making it easier for him to play the victim of “corrupt and fake media”.
The same tactics were used by Trump’s political opposition to deal with his psychological strategies from KGB textbooks. They tirelessly persuaded that Trump was a bad man, repeatedly violating their own political ideals of tolerance, civility and solidarity. Also, many were unable to resist the need to publicly express outrage on social media, even to compete over who would condemn Trump’s words and actions more, as this somehow became a form of symbolic capital accumulation within anti-Trump communities.
In doing so, they allowed Trump – the king of right-wing internet trolls – to drag them to his uncivilized level of discourse, which they themselves strongly condemned, hypocritically using offensive and violent discourse in dealing with dissenters, thus contributing to polarization – division into ours and yours – and the consequent radicalization of society. Instead of behaving responsibly and strategically, for four years they kept repeating what was wrong with Trump – as if everyone didn’t know already. As if they simply could not overcome the imposed pattern of “us against them”.
Trump has skillfully exploited the circus of public outrage and provoked hatred of his opponents to shatter their credibility all these years and persuade undecided voters that “liberals” are crazy savages. Despite all this negative campaign, and after all that Trump afforded himself as President of the United States, 75 million US citizens still voted for the guy as a better alternative than the Democrats. In this context, many liberals have not learned much, as Trump would probably have won the election again if the covid-19 epidemic had not happened to him.
Now the Democrats, led by Biden, will have four years to prove themselves, but they have a difficult task ahead of them. The general distrust of citizens in political institutions, science and traditional media is high. With the simultaneous flood of fake news online, this has led to a high structural untuning of members of American society who live in different realities and are no longer able to communicate rationally with each other. Will Biden and the Democrats succeed?
The start is promising in terms of Biden communicating with the public more dignifiedly than his predecessor, which is good for the nation’s collective psyche. The direction of public policies of the new administration, which Biden indicated with signed executive orders, is also promising. With them, the US rejoined, among other things, some international institutions and treaties, and announced more constructive US cooperation in the international arena, especially with Europe.
Public opinion in the US is also not fond of new wars around the world, which is why we can expect Biden to be as peaceful a president in this regard as his predecessor was. It remains unknown, however, how Americans will operate in the new global balance of power between nations that has emerged while the US (also applies to the EU) was busy with itself.
The biggest challenge for the US in the short term, of course, is to defeat the covid-19 epidemic and mitigate its economic and social consequences. At the same time, Americans can expect changes in the areas of taxes, health care and education, especially those that will pursue the reduction of differences between different social groups. They (and us) are also promised greater regulation of the Internet and personal data in the time of increasing digitalization and coexistence with artificial intelligence.
Unfortunately, this is a world in which not all people will fare well, especially the elderly and the less educated, and especially rural folks who will lose jobs (and entire industries) at the expense of automation, artificial intelligence and societal change. The growing moral question of the 21st century is therefore how to solve the problem of people who will lag behind in the next development leap. Failure to address this problem will lead to further populist uprisings by desperate segments of society, and despair and a sense of helplessness always lead people to political radicalization.
Darwin proved that in nature, the organisms that are best able to adapt to change survive. But history also teaches that those communities whose members are capable of good cooperation based on mutual understanding and respect survive. As classical political thinkers believed: a happy individual cannot exist in an unhappy community. However, politicians cannot do everything on their own, so part of the responsibility for a healthy democracy lies with the citizens. Biden has already raised the level of public discourse, and citizens will decide for themselves whether to follow him.