“all right we are two nations”
So wrote John Dos Passos in his 1936 novel The Big Money. For Dos Passos, America between the world wars had become a place defined by sharp divisions, pitting the oppressors against the oppressed.
Inhabiting one nation were the rich and powerful, those in a position, as Dos Passos put it, to “hire the men with guns the uniforms the policecars the patrolwagons.” In the other nation were ordinary people — immigrants, workers, the downtrodden — struggling to get by, but “beaten by strangers … who have taken the clean words our fathers spoke and made them slimy and foul.”
The elevation of Donald Trump to the presidency reveals that we are once again (or perhaps still) two nations. But the divide between the haves and the have-nots is no longer adequate to describe the cleavages laid bare by the election of 2016. For Dos Passos, influenced by the Marxism that was then fashionable, class differences were of paramount importance. Today while still relevant, class alone provides an inadequate explanatory framework. Our cleavages are more profound and encompass status and culture, and by extension race, gender and ethnicity.
In that regard, historians are likely to see the candidates themselves as mere proxies in an election that centered not on personality or character but on identity. In other words, the contest was only nominally about Trump and Clinton as individuals. In terms of substance, it constituted a referendum on the nation’s trajectory going back more than a quarter century. Then, in the aftermath of the Cold War, both parties embraced the precepts of globalization along with a militarized approach to exercising global leadership.
In the realm of political economy, neoliberalism achieved quasi-theological status. As a result, some Americans got very rich, others managed to get by, and considerable numbers found themselves left behind. While paying lip service to the concerns of those hurt by deindustrialization and slow to embrace the wonders of the information economy, both parties have essentially written off the dispossessed as collateral casualties. They have also written off or regard as old-fashioned certain cultural convictions and sensitivities that linger in these circles, particularly those relating to marriage and family.
In the realm of foreign policy, meanwhile, all of the hokum about the United States serving as the world’s “indispensable nation” provided a rationale for perpetuating and even expanding the national security state. The military-industrial complex continued to thrive. But the costs — disproportionately borne by those who see in military service a rare opportunity to land a decently-paying job — proved to be high. Among other things, the United States today finds itself mired in a condition of more-or-less permanent war — a reality that both parties take for granted.
Granted, Donald Trump makes for an odd champion of those who have been left behind. His virtues are few and his flaws abundantly on display almost every time he opens his mouth. Trump’s approach to campaigning tends to be long on generalities — “Make American Great Again” — and short on specifics. When he does offer specifics, they tend to be bizarre, not least of all in matters touching on statecraft. Consider, for example, his willingness to countenance the further proliferation of nuclear weapons in hot spots around the world.
Yet despite his wildly unorthodox views and outlandish behavior, he won. Why? Clinton’s own shortcomings provide one answer. Yet Trump’s appeal to the tens of millions who gave him their support seems to stems from something more: Here, they appear to believe, is a man who will pull down the temple. It is this prospect of Trump functioning as a human wrecking ball that energized voters.
Whether having done so Trump will figure out a way to rebuild it remains to be seen. In the meantime, however, the work of concerned citizens is to reflect deeply on the divisions that produced the political earthquake of the past 24 hours. However strong the inclination to rail against those who handed Trump the White House, it should be avoided.
Unless Americans find a way to close the divide that has made us two nations, we may end up not having a nation at all. There is no restoring even a semblance of unity without first understanding the gulf that separates us.