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365 Days Later… How Are You Holding Up, America? - Insight from Jérémie Gallon

BLOG - 19 January 2018

By Institut Montaigne

A year after Trump’s inauguration, how is the United States reacting to this unusual - to say the least - presidency, and what impact has it had on the country? Jérémie Gallon, Managing Director of AmCham and Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, answers our questions.

How is the United States “health check” doing? For Trump’s voters or those who did not cast their vote,  are there elements indicating they would be making a different choice today? 

Apart from President Trump’s tweets and sensational declarations, it is worth noting that counter-powers, in particular Congress and the judiciary, have been functioning properly until now.
 
The immigration ban issued by President Trump on January 2017 for example, was immediately blocked by multiple federal judges. As for Congress, it has played an essential role in foreign policy. Indeed, it has imposed new economic sanctions against Russia, thus going against Trump’s opinion. The “checks and balances” system, as willed by the Founding Fathers, is still holding on. 

It should also be noted that American states, media, companies and the entire civil society have shown great resistance and continue to vigorously shape the public debate. The fourth estate is completely reinvigorated, as illustrated by the New York Times’ sales records. 

From a French perspective, one cannot help but wonder what would happen were a French Trump to be elected as President. Would we have as effective forms of counter-powers in France? Would the French media enjoy the same freedom and investigation capacities as the Washington Post, CNN and many others American media? Would our local authorities be able to form an effective and financially self-sufficient counter-power in response to an all-mighty State? Would our judiciary remain independent from the executive branch? These are just a few of the many questions lacking predictable answers… 

If counter-powers are active and competent in the United States, the radicalisation of the public debate nonetheless remains very worrying. The current climate of verbal violence, especially against the media, bears witness to the significant tensions corroding American society. 

Besides, the US democracy remains weakened by structural issues that arose long before the Trump presidency. The first one is the growing polarization of  American politics. Gone are the times when Tip O’Neill - Democratic leader of the House of Representatives - reached agreements with President Reagan over a glass of Bourbon late at night in the Oval Office. Today, there is almost no issue on which Democrats and Republicans manage to agree, let alone dialogue or work together.

The current polarization of politics is closely linked to another major problem: the omnipresence of money and its devastating impact on American democracy. US politicians have become increasingly dependent on private interests. Some studies even showed that members of Congress now spend more than 60% of their time raising funds.

Regarding your second question, I am struck by the fact that Trump’s electorate base remains very faithful to the President. Despite all the controversies, he continues to seduce around 80% of the Republicans. If many analysts anticipate difficult midterm elections for the Republican party, I remain convinced that the anti-Trump stance won’t be sufficient for Democrats to take back the White House in 2020. It is now essential for them to put forth new ideas and spark the emergence of a new generation of leaders. The Democratic Party comprises young talents such as Kamala Harris, Senator of California, Cory Booker, Senator of New Jersey, or Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend in the very conservative state of Indiana. However, they are still not visible enough.

We are all aware of the positions taken by Trump on the Paris agreement. Do they reflect the majority opinion of American citizens and companies on climate change or is there now also a broader awareness  in the United States? 

When Trump announced the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris agreement, many US companies immediately expressed their profound disagreement with this decision and used this opportunity to reassert their environmental commitments. It was striking to see that these companies belonged to all types of sectors of the economy and are often leaders in innovation in the fight against global warming.

Moreover, 15 Governors, both Democrats and Republicans, whose states overall represent a third of the American population and around 40% of the United States’ GDP, announced they would pursue the goals set by the Paris Agreement. They were joined by hundreds of US mayors, in particular from leading American cities. This is another example of the counter-powers’ strength in the United States.

This also proves that the fight against global warming and the “greening” of the economy does not entirely depend on a political leader, no matter how powerful he is. These battles are led by our societies on the long run and involve all actors of civil society. President Macron has perfectly understood this phenomenon, as the recent One Planet Summit he organized in Paris demonstrates. I am also convinced that only by connecting with the US companies and states engaged in this fight can France and Europe succeed in persuading the United States to return to the Paris Agreement.

The fact that Trump’s electoral base supported the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement must nonetheless challenge our economic and political elites. Many Trump voters are indeed women and men who believe the fight against global warming is led at the expense of their jobs. This is the case for instance in the former mining regions of West Virginia. It is thus urgent to find solutions to show these people, who already feel left-behind by the globalisation movement, that the environment fight will not be led behind their back.

Economically, the United States is doing well, but the country is experiencing significant tensions - social and ethnic in particular. Has the situation changed during this first year, and if so, how?

Let us go back a few years. When Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, the United States was struck by the worst financial and economic crisis since 1929. Millions of Americans had just lost their houses and jobs. Many tend to forget this but, with the support of his Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, he managed to revive the economy in record time. Growth was restored and unemployment kept decreasing, reaching 4.6% at the end of his second term.

The issue is that this economic recovery brought with it, as it had already been the case for many decades in the United States, growing inequalities. Since the macro-economic indicators were positive, the East and West Coast elite did not see - or refused to see - that an important part of America was suffering more and more.

This America is that of Southern States, of former mining regions in the Appalachian Mountains, or in the Rust Belt hit by deindustrialization. An America where, as shown by the economist Angus Deaton, the mortality of white middle-aged Americans has started rising again due to alcoholism, overdoses and an increasing number of suicides. This is the America, consumed with social despair, which J.D. Vance describes in his novel Hillbilly Elegy. This is the America which massively voted for Trump.

Since the latter set foot in the White House, unemployment continued to decrease and the stock market has reached new high records. Nonetheless, inequalities are still widening, the opioid crisis continues to ravage the country and the anger of the “left-behind” remains acute. It is thus a real challenge for the Trump administration not to be satisfied only with good macro-economic indicators, but on the contrary to try to present solutions to those who feel like the losers of globalization.

Besides, the United States (alike a myriad of  other democracies in Europe) is worn out by racial and ethnic tensions. Those tensions existed well before Trump’s arrival in the White House. Indeed, the “Black Lives Matter” movement widely expanded from 2013. Since then, it has denounced systemic racism against African-Americans, as well as police violence. 

It is however obvious that Trump’s very aggressive rhetoric, both as a candidate and as a president, along with the radicalization of the public debate, has not helped to reduce tensions. On the contrary, ethnic and social tensions are rising with some demons of the past, especially the white supremacist movement, coming back on the front scene. 
 

 

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