In the week after Trump’s electoral defeat in the United States, people are busy taking stock. Most of them are devastating. For very understandable reasons. But there are also a few blades of grass in the desert of Trumpism.
It is more than understandable that large parts of the USA and the world breathe a sigh of relief after the end of this presidency. Finally there is an end in sight to the lies, the insults, the tweets. With Joe Biden, sanity returns to the White House, whether you’re okay with everything he’s up to or not. But as devastating as the verdicts on President Donald Trump are, he was not entirely wrong here and there with what he was propagating – so much so that the Democrats tacitly adopted one point or the other.
The criticism of Trump is primarily aimed at the way he makes politics. That he stirs up hatred, does not understand democracy and is always concerned with his own advantage in the most petty way. This led to the fact that he saw “very good people” at a neo-Nazi demonstration, accepted secret campaign support from Russia and now refused to accept the outcome of the election. All of this shows that he was the wrong man for the job, lacking the intellectual stature and character to be up to the task. Instead of “making America great again”, Trump threatened to become a wrecking ball for democracy, political culture, perhaps even the unity of the country.
But the way it is done is one thing, the content and the program are another. As Helmut Kohl said: What matters is what comes out at the back. Here, too, one can criticize a lot, for example that Trump abolished compulsory health insurance and many environmental protection requirements or that his major tax reform primarily benefited the rich. But unlike the criticism of Trump’s character and leadership style, opinions can be divided when it comes to the content. Even if that has been difficult for years with the classic Republican program from a German and European perspective. In terms of content, they had eroded themselves so far before Trump that their concerns could be summarized as “more weapons, more religion, less taxes”.
Empty content recognized
Trump recognized this empty content and filled it anew. In 2016, he won the presidency against Hillary Clinton because he consistently promised to bring jobs back to the US, stop or renegotiate free trade agreements, mangle China, stop illegal immigration and introduce better, cheaper health insurance. This part of his program could be called economic populism. He also promised to keep the US out of “stupid wars” and to bring troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq. That wouldn’t be such a controversial program in itself. The fact that children were then locked in cages at the border, the trade war with China did not bring much benefit and a unilateral US withdrawal from Syria and Iraq would only benefit Russia is another matter.
The implementation at Trump was blind and moderately successful. But pursuing this program was legitimate and shouldn’t have sounded so radical and insane if it hadn’t been for an incendiary speaker like Trump. The goal of creating new jobs in the old industries, or at least keeping them, had not been pursued so consistently by either of the two major parties. Rather, they surrendered to the dogma of free trade. It was seen that if industry in Asia produces more efficiently, then thanks to falling prices everyone benefits from it. That is not wrong – and in the USA, new jobs have actually been created in other sectors. But a steel worker in the American Midwest doesn’t have much of it when a new job is created at software companies in Oregon on the Pacific coast. And it’s just something else to be a well-paid skilled worker in an industrial company or to have two moderately paid service jobs and in between to work as an Uber driver.
In Germany there is and rightly the consensus that industry will not simply be given up. Whether VW, BASF or Siemens – of course, all of these companies also produce abroad, but they are also committed to their home location. In doing so, they create hundreds of thousands of well-paid jobs and thus make an important contribution to the stability of society. Once the industry has migrated, as in many other places in the US, it is of course difficult to bring it back. Trump always overlooked the fact that many jobs disappeared because of the automation of production and are probably lost forever. Maybe that’s why Trump didn’t achieve much. But that he consistently focused on this goal was new – and successful in the election.
Biden tacitly took points
The Democrats’ sending Joe Biden into the race was a direct response. The Pennsylvania man, himself a working class child, always considered a union man. And Biden did not attack Trump with that goal. His central theme was that he wanted to save “the soul of America”, not that Trump’s job goals were wrong. The fact that Biden announced plans to start a “Buy American” program speaks volumes. The Democrats tried under Obama to strengthen domestic production. But that never had the priority as with Trump. It is also not to be expected that Biden will immediately go on a cuddle course with China. He will choose other means than Trump, but that China is not just a trading partner, but an opponent, a competitor, that is how the Democrats now see it too. Trump was not the first to formulate that either. But he drummed it into the masses. Biden could hope, expect or demand that the Europeans side with the US in the dispute with China. The EU’s position to stay out of this was easy to hold out under Trump, but it could be difficult under Biden.
It is also not illegitimate to act consistently as President against illegal immigration. By the way, Obama did the same. The wall on the border with Mexico, which is actually more of a fence, quickly became a symbol of isolation, racism, and Trump’s aggressiveness. The fact that immigrant children were separated from their parents and locked in cages rightly caused an outcry. That it was pretended that rapists and gangsters in particular came across the border, too. But when a craftsman in the southern United States complains that he is getting fewer and fewer jobs because illegally immigrant men are selling everything cheaper, it does make you think. As usual, with Trump, it was the way he did it that attracted legitimate criticism. But it is okay for a politician to take such questions seriously. The fact that he stirs up hatred does not, however.
The pattern of “right concern, miserable implementation” continues in foreign policy. It is understandable that the Americans expect more from their NATO partners. That shouldn’t change under Biden either. That you question the alliance for this is less likely. The fact that the US is no longer waging “stupid wars” is most welcome. The fact that Trump let the Kurds down, without whom ISIS would never have been defeated, and simply declared the terrorist militia defeated, was not so glorious. One could argue the same way in Afghanistan. Here, however, Trump could be blamed for having the courage to negotiate with the Taliban and reach an agreement. If you haven’t achieved a stable peace after 19 years of war, you can ask yourself how long this will go on. Of course, it remains to be seen whether the agreement with the radical Islamists will bring this about. Given the ongoing violence in the country, it doesn’t look like it. It was a success for Trump, however, that Israel and the United Arab Emirates established diplomatic relations under his administration.
That you can win elections with this program has changed both parties and brought them back closer to millions of people who previously felt left out. To make them an offer, a simple “More weapons, more religion, lower taxes” will no longer be enough for the Republicans in the long run. Even they will not be able to avoid continuing to promise better health insurance. The Democrats have learned the painful way that they don’t have this constituency safe. Both parties will have to work harder to understand people and take their concerns seriously. This is not so much Trump’s personal merit, but rather an insight that follows from his presidency. And yet this is one of the blades of grass that, despite everything, sprout in the wasteland of the Trump Desert.