‘Unity’ in post-Trump America

DONALD Trump recently met with House minority leader Kevin Mccarthy.

I won’t bore you with all the exact political significance of the meeting. Suffice it to say that politically: Trump lives and breathes.

Honestly, even if he didn’t, his legacy could be one of the most relevant and significant of any past American president in recent history.

This may not entirely be due to Trump himself; to some extent, he was merely in the right place at the right time.

Understanding this place and time in both American and world history is important and valuable.

A hotly debated word that President Joe Biden has used repeatedly is "unity". It’s a word very much worth trying to unpack.

Let’s start by examining the concept in the current American context.

"Unity" is used as a counterpoint for the extremely divisive political mood that has gripped America for a long time now, and was severely exacerbated during the Trump era.

Division in America - indeed in the world - is characterised by a deep polarisation, and a middle ground that has been shrinking for years.

In its place is increasing social-cultural-political tribalism, and an ever-increasing sense of alienation from those who hold different beliefs.

Indeed,"alienation" is a particularly apt description, as it seems ever more the case that people with different views see each other as if they came from another planet - with perspectives and beliefs that are literally incomprehensible to each other.

We obviously don’t have the space to delve into this in detail, but let’s talk a little about how this manifests in American politics.

America - touted as the world’s poster boy for democracy - has long been founded on a two-party system.

Today, it feels like that is splitting into a four-party system.

One should never oversimplify political and ideological nuances, but I will indulge a little for the purposes of painting a broad picture.

The Republican party is the one that is in the deepest crisis, and the one that will be first forced to resolve one of its biggest ever crises of identity.

Very broadly speaking, on one end of the spectrum, you have your fairly traditional, establishment Republicans - now represented perhaps by the likes of Liz Cheney, Cindy McCain, (both of which have obviously relevant last names) and Mitt Romney.

These Republicans have never liked Trump, and are likely doing their best to pull the party back from what they see is a cliff of absolute disaster for the party.

The more prominent individuals today representing the other end of the spectrum are the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, and Josh Hawley - people that centrist Republicans, and most others that don’t agree with them, might describe as something along the lines of "batshit crazy".

I don’t think we have space to discuss the Democrats at length, but they too have similar ideological differences.

Joe Biden is probably seen as closer to more centrist, establishment Democrats. The other end of the spectrum here is represented by the likes of Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez - the "radical socialists", some would say, who have little real love for Biden and his associates.

While the far left has considerable incentive to close ranks for now, with Democrats controlling the White House and Congress, it’s open season on the right.

The Trump-Mccarthy meeting, and Marjorie Taylor Greene’s appointment to a Congressional House Committee are early signs that prominent, elected Republicans are truly not done with the Trump kool-aid.

My interpretation? Republicans must be seeing data indicating that their best hopes for winning future elections are to keep going harder to the right.

I suppose this should not be surprising.

My good friend the highly respected Dr Wong Chin Huat always has great analogies. He likes to call the centre-ground "decaf coffee","Coke light" and so on - good for your health, but nothing anyone ever gets excited about.

And let’s be honest - who on earth is going to get excited about Liz Cheney, Cindy Mccain, or Mitt Romney? Indeed, at their age, too much excitement might be a health risk.

Trump galvanised, and to a large extent legitimised a huge segment of Americans - Americans who were probably berated into being ashamed of their true views, and had simmering frustrations of having to suppress what they really felt.

He started a fire, and there is plenty to suggest that it is a fire that will continue to rage, rather than simply disappear and fly away.

Dr Wong’s most memorable comment on unity was that if you really want "unity", go to North Korea.

This joke/poke alludes to how people Dr Wong sometimes calls "unity fetishists" talk about unity in a way that seems to preclude any need for political disagreement, debate and so on.

I talk about unity a lot, but I don’t harbour any illusions that "unity" should bring about an end to vibrant political debates and the ability of citizens to organise themselves along their beliefs.

In Malaysia of course, we have wrestled with the concept of "national unity" for generations. Our dynamics are quite different from those in America, but there are undoubtedly some parallels, and some potential things we can learn.

I think the splitting of the two-party system in America into something like a four-corner fight may become more and more apparent.

On paper, this of course would theoretically mean less, rather than more, unity.

It is the nature of media and society that the radical fringes tend to get the most attention - often disproportionately in comparison to the actual number of people they represent.

This isn’t to underestimate the growing number of people who are attracted to the fringes - a segment of society that I hope to discuss somewhat in a follow-up article.

I do believe however that there is still a sizeable middle ground - both in America and in Malaysia - that is less interested in being part of this increasing polarisation, and is more interested in lessening the intrusion of divisive politics into the functioning of everyday life.

I think Biden will be looking to craft his policies and messaging in such a way as to appeal to this middle ground.

"Unity" in this sense thus does not speak significantly to resolving political differences and impasses (which may be increasing rather than decreasing), but to creating a sense of shared purpose, where ordinary Americans feel that the government is focused on making lives better for everyone involved, with extremely reduced regard for partisanship and political issues and problems.

This sentiment is particularly relevant in the battle against Covid-19, and the manner in which it requires a whole-of-society approach.

So, when we talk about unity, it is important to note that we are not referring to some mythical state in which everyone agrees about everything, but to a state in which a nation has a much higher sense of shared purpose - a feeling that we are all in this together, and that we can find better ways to integrate and resolve different viewpoints, based on mutually beneficial shared goals.

NATHANIEL TAN is a big believer in #BangsaMalaysia. He works with Projek Wawasan Rakyat (POWR), tweets @NatAsasi and can be reached at nat@engage.my.

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