The Platform

Donald Trump campaigning in 2016. (Eliyahu Yosef Parypa/Shutterstock)

In 2016, the election of Donald Trump brought deep-rooted divisions in the United States to the fore, divided well before his election. Trump’s election was described by some watchers as a “whitelash,” following Obama’s election in 2008. Despite causing an economic recovery and placing the U.S. economy on a better footing than when he found it, Trump’s rhetoric and brashness caused renewed divisions to supersede years of economic and social progress.

The easiest way to create a sense of community amongst voters is to find a common foreign enemy. In Trump’s case, the common enemy was the world, with tariffs threatened or the imposition of tariffs on Europe, South Korea, Japan, and China. The capitalist system of the U.S. caused the gains from economic growth to accrue to investors who disproportionately hold capital.

Over the last decade, work has become increasingly precarious, and wages have risen only tepidly. These, of course, reflect years of deregulation and the abolition of worker rights, and any form of central wage bargaining. Even so, reason has always been devoid of Trump’s rhetoric, which blamed migrants for job losses and lower wages.

Populist rhetoric

His incensed rhetoric appealed to his supporters, who did not live in cities such as New York or San Francisco and whose cities were most likely affected by globalization and deindustrialization. He blamed the liberal elite for failing to put the interests of “White America” first.

He externalized what America has been thinking for the past 150 years, that any non-white person must be unfit to live in American society. As such, blatantly condemning Mexicans in the most Dickensian terms and referring to white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville to protest the taking down of a Confederate monument as “very fine people” can perhaps better illustrate this.

As police brutality became a lightning rod issue, his supporters were more concerned with the Russian probe, jailing Hillary Clinton, and trade wars that will, somehow, bring jobs back to the United States. Secondly, it is now widely accepted that China’s economic model of forced technology transfers, intellectual property theft, and subsidies to state-owned companies put the United States at a disadvantage militarily and economically.

Targeting China

While the U.S. was right to challenge China on its state-driven model of economic growth, the former president sought to cast China as the enemy of the people for attracting foreign direct investment and causing businesses to relocate to China. In the early 2000s, businesses moved to China to benefit from cheaper input costs and lower wages, which is consistent with “the profit maximization” motive espoused by U.S. capitalism.

Rather than blaming America’s inability to upskill the workforce for a more tech-centric world, he started a trade war with China that was designed to attract jobs back to the United States and create employment for his base, the majority of whom live in the rust belt.

The trade war rendered Americans distrustful of Chinese students and Asian-looking Americans, even as these students are a cash cow for America’s overpriced universities. As such, his anti-China rhetoric served him prior to the 2016 presidential election and continues to do so amidst the pandemic, for which he blames China as the cause of the global lockdown.

Russian Roulette

By creating a common enemy, he created loyalists among his voter base who prefer the idea of someone who talks like them in the White House. Robert Mueller and the Russian probe became a reality and his decision to not inform the FBI of knowledge on possible Russian interference did not require a charge from William Barr.

Meanwhile, Russian interference is assumed to be true and the attacks on both the DNC and RNC were evidence of possible interference. Regarding the Russian question, he described it as a “witch hunt” that was being used by the Democrats to discredit him. This has further entrenched his voter base who was all but certain that the Mueller probe was a decision by the establishment to give the impression of wrongdoing by his administration.


The Trump administration equally enhanced the cognitive dissonance in American society, giving the impression that the economy is rigged against white Americans. By dehumanizing ethnic minorities and giving the impression that ethnic minorities such as Congresswomen Alexander Ocasio Cortez and Ilhan Omar are not American due to their heritage, he verbalized the views of bigots and xenophobes who grew increasingly confident and organized rallies across the U.S. since his election.

By no means is one blaming the former president, but he certainly inflamed tensions between his voter base who feel truly American and ethnic minorities who are equally American. By building a wall on the Southern border and allowing children to die in inhumane camps, he sought to harden the anti-immigration rhetoric to unprecedented levels, failing to acknowledge policy failures at all costs and communicating policy decisions via Twitter.

Climate and nuclear agreements

It is a fact that human activity has exacerbated, if not caused, global warming, which, in turn, has caused extreme climate events such as cyclones, wildfires, and rising sea levels. However, the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, which provided a roadmap for countries to limit emissions and bring global temperatures below pre-industrial levels.

This has diluted the debate from one on the best sets of policies to reduce carbon emissions and bring about sustainable economic growth to one about whether climate change exists or not. This has further entrenched partisan politics in the climate debate as die-hard right-leaning conservatives question the legitimacy of science, all to the detriment of changes that will create green high-quality jobs.

In line with his anti-globalist approach, Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, which was agreed to by the Obama administration in order to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Not only did his decision to leave this agreement pit the United States against the EU, it equally divided American society and policy wonks, who at once thought this would bring Iran to the negotiating table by tightening economic sanctions.

Since then, Iran has threatened to prevent cargo ships from moving freely through the Strait of Hormuz and shot down one of the most advanced unmanned drones of the United States. The election of Donald Trump caused reverberations across society, but America was divided well before his election.

He added fuel to the fire, but America’s partisan politics was always going to get to this point. By no means is Trump the cause of America’s hyper-politicized and polarised electorate, but he served as a catalyst for fragmentations in society; the likes of which were unimaginable in the Nixon, Bush, or the Obama days combined.

Henri Kouam is an economist and contributor to the Nkafu Policy Institute, a think tank. Before this, he was an economist and macroeconomic strategist at Roubini Global Economics, one of the leading economic research providers in London.

Sarmad Ishfaq is an independent researcher and writer whose work has been published by the Harvard Kennedy School Review, The Diplomat, openDemocracy, Paradigm Shift, Modern Diplomacy and Eurasia Review to name a few. He has also been published by several international peer-reviewed journals such as Taylor and Francis' Social Identities. Before becoming an independent writer, he worked as a research fellow for the Lahore Center for Peace Research. He has a Master's degree in International Relations from the University of Wollongong in Dubai where he was recognized as the 'Top Graduate.'