Trump and the aftermath of the election: “The American Civil War never ended”

Joe Biden will have to contend with a violent resistance movement in the USA, predicts political researcher and author Hans Kundnani of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. In an interview with ntv.de, he describes the deep division in US society as the cause of the conflict. He also talks about undesirable developments in recent times – and whether Donald Trump’s accusation of the stolen election can be described as a “stab in the back” legend.

ntv.de: Mr. Kundnani, when Donald Trump was elected in 2016, you worked in Washington and were shocked. Do you have more confidence in the future now that Joe Biden is about to become president?

Hans Kundnani: I’m relieved that Joe Biden won. The election result showed, however, that America is deeply divided and that Trump has great support after four years in power. One often hears from the Biden camp that they managed to garner 79 million votes – more than any other candidate in American history has ever received. But 73 million people also voted for Trump. This is the second best result in US history – after Biden. So the United States is split into two similarly sized camps, irreconcilable and increasingly antagonistic. The causes are very old, I would say: as old as the republic itself.

How long has this split been going on?

The problem – the increasing polarization of US society – goes back to the realignment of American politics in the 1960s. At that time, the Democrats under President Lyndon Johnson enforced civil rights for black Americans, thereby losing white voters in the south. The Republicans tried to win these voters over with a more or less covert racism. They called it “Southern Strategy”. The social division that was driven forward is part of a much longer story that leads back to the civil war in the 1860s. Its cause was racism. Although it has taken quite different forms today, I would like to go as far as to say that the civil war never really ended.

Do the history books need to be rewritten?

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Not necessarily, they just have to be read! Many – both Americans and non-Americans – tend to idealize American history and create a myth. You want a story of progress. But reality is more complicated – and darker. You can read about this in history books: For example, how the northern states, after the victory of the civil war, allowed the southern states to deprive black people of the right to vote as part of a reconciliation strategy. This compromise lasted until the 1960s. Another example is the black Americans who were excluded from the New Deal stimulus program under President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s. Then when universal civil rights were guaranteed some 60 years ago, they were the catalyst for the polarization of society that has reached a new height in the civil war-like states that America is now experiencing.

Does Biden stand a chance of bridging the split?

Much depends on whether his party, the Democrats, win two more seats in the state of Georgia in January and thus have a majority. If the majority goes to the Republicans, they can block a lot – just as they did for a few years when Barack Obama was president. And if the Democrats win a majority in the Senate and push through their climate and economic policy goals and fight racism for more justice, it is possible that it will make the Republicans even angrier.

A mixture in which the social division you are talking about could easily intensify counterproductive.

Yes. I fear that a violent resistance movement against the Biden government will develop.

What could such a resistance movement look like in concrete terms?

If Biden moves to the White House in January, he will immediately put in place tougher measures against the spread of the coronavirus. It is to be expected that the conservative camp sees this as an overstretching of state violence and a fundamental restriction of American civil liberties. The conservative media, from Fox to InfoWars, will continue to fuel the anger. This also fits the rumors that Donald Trump could found a new television station himself. Furthermore, it seems to me inevitable that at the institutional level there will soon be a battle between Biden’s government and the conservatively dominated Supreme Court – be it over the question of abortion, the health system or other issues of principle. Finally, there is potential for resistance on the street. By that I mean private militias like the Proud Boys who recently marched in Washington DC: armed groups with an uncanny presence.

Welcome to the American Middle Ages! The only thing missing is a counter-king like the one that occasionally existed in Europe in medieval times.

You are not that far away from that. With his recent behavior, Trump is questioning the legitimacy of his successor. Even if he pulls back now and allows a proper handover, it could become a tangible problem if a not insignificant crowd of supporters continues to view him as a legitimate president whose fair election is said to have been stolen.

This is reminiscent of the “stab in the back legend” referred to by US commentators such as Timothy Snyder: it served the reactionary forces in Germany a hundred years ago to question the legitimacy of the Weimar Republic. The reason was: The German Empire never lost the First World War, but was taken by surprise from behind by internal opponents – Social Democrats and Jews.

Yes. In the four years since Trump was elected, parallels have been drawn between the United States today and Germany in the first half of the 20th century. I reject such comparisons – but I share the view behind the comparison with the stab in the back legend, since Trump uses a conspiracy theory to play with fire. In my opinion, however, the implicit assumption that Trump is a fascist is incorrect. For me, Trumpism is a little different from fascism. Racism is inherent in both movements. But fascism lacks the libertarian element that is very pronounced in American conservatism. To put it bluntly, American conservatives want less state, no more state like fascists! In order to understand Trumpism, therefore, it is not helpful to refer to European history. The USA has gone its own way, you could perhaps say a special way that began with the so-called original sin of slavery. The Trump phenomenon ultimately emerged from him.

Is the resistance you outline really new? Haven’t the two parties in the USA repeatedly accused each other of cheating?

Not like today. While society has polarized further in recent decades, the willingness to recognize the tight election results – the so-called “losers’ consent” has dwindled. Today one only accepts the government of the party that one has elected – another is fundamentally not legitimate. This is a very dangerous development for democracy. It started with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, which many conservative Americans could not accept. Trump even started his own political career challenging Obama’s legitimacy as president. At the time, he spread the idea that Obama was not born in the United States. It was a conspiracy theory that went down in history as “Birtherism”. As of 2016, Trump was again viewed by many Democrats as illegitimate.

How do you assess the election in 2000, from which George W. Bush emerged very narrowly as the winner against Al Gore?

The election 20 years ago was very close – the result depended on a few hundred ballots in Florida. It took 36 days and fierce legal battles before Bush’s victory was certain. Nevertheless, in retrospect, it can be said that his election, as well as his re-election in 2004, were recognized by Al Gore and his supporters. Bush’s presidency thus marks the end of an era in which the losers adhered to the norm of “losers’ consent”.

Would it be best for the US if Trump retired now?

I can’t imagine he’ll do that. But it is an open question whether and how he will try to lead the resistance against Biden. Today’s groups in the conservative camp pursue different goals – in particular, they are divided between social conservatives and libertarians. Trump could become the figure that unites and leads them. The central question for me is whether a unified political-ideological movement will emerge again like the Tea Party, which met immediately after Obama’s election in 2008. It was the beginning of the Trump movement.

Peter Littger spoke to Hans Kundnani

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