Espen Hammer. Photo: Celina Øier.
With the book USA. A superpower in crisis Espen Hammer delivers one of the best analyzes of the ongoing American tragedy I can remember reading. Hammer has lived for 20 years United States, first as a student, now as a philosophy professor, and writes with heart and head. The language is simple, the text concise, and the development of the American drama leading up to the change of president in January 2021 is explained with crystal clear logic. At the same time, he uses images that give the analyzes closeness and nerve.
Hammer draws a common thread from Ronald Reagan's wild financials liberalism in the 1980s, through globalization, growing nationalism and unscrupulous financial capitalism – until Donald Trumps right-wing populism. The United States was characterized by deep and growing social divides in the election in November 2016. Real wages stagnated, and hundreds of thousands of traditional jobs had disappeared. Finance and industrial companies had secured influence over politics to such an extent that the independence of legislators in practice was undermined. An important point in the book is that almost every function in American society was commercialized. Even federal or state health institutions were subject to market principles and had to operate at a profit. Around 30 million people were without health insurance – they simply could not afford to get sick or injured. Large parts of society felt overlooked, forgotten and neglected. They lacked confidence in both politics and politicians.
The author emphasizes that the culture of society was characterized by self-interest overshadowing the consideration of the whole. Behind virtually every member of the two chambers of Congress is a business enterprise. It has become prohibitively expensive to become a politician, and the costs are often paid for with donations from companies that want something in return for their efforts. At the same time, the use of lobbyists has increased, both in scope and consequence. Hordes of top-qualified professionals make big money getting politicians to do things their clients can make money on. They are doing better and better – and have become more and more. The value of this business in 2019 was estimated at well over NOK 40 billion.
For all those who have more and more perceived themselves as losers (and this may be almost half of the voters), this development seems inconsolable. They feel oppressed by a well-educated elite in alliance with tyrannical rich people and an impenetrable, corrupt bureaucracy. Hammer gives an understandable picture of how the hope of a happier future is increasingly blurred.
In this segment of society, it was Donald Trump who found his audience. He met the voters with their own language, surfing the same wave of frustration. "Lock her up!" he roared about Hillary Clinton – simple, raw speech, exactly what his constituency would hear. She was all that the angry half of American voters felt overwhelmed by: part of the elite, well-educated, with close ties to the money power, the bureaucracy and the rest of the establishment, to the excess of eight years behind her as the first lady of the United States. She was obviously "good", better than Trump, but if there was one thing these voters did not want, it was a good president. They had had enough of it.
When Donald Trump ran as a presidential candidate, it was almost perceived as a joke in Europe and among the intelligentsia in the United States. Serious analysts and commentators, including the undersigned (in NRK, lectures, debates, blogs and podcasts), claimed that the man suffered from deep narcissistice personality disorders and that consequently it had to be seen as impossible that he should become president. The diagnosis was obviously correct, the rest was (as we now know) terribly wrong. But, we said then – once it went so wrong, the American system wanted off checks and balances certainly limit the harmful effects.
The division in the American population from the last two, three, maybe four decades has now intensified.
There we were also wrong. Hammer elaborates on this contradiction by showing how Trump's exercise of presidential power became a notion in which consideration for absolutely everything, not least the truth, was governed by his unbridled ego. Thus, he led a course that was not provided for in society's system checks and balances. He neglected the elected representatives, pursued an inconsistent, emotionally charged foreign policy, weakened the credibility of the United States, trampled on agreements and commitments, and promoted attitudes that the United States has struggled to uproot since the nation was united in 1865. Like all other right-wing populists he stands for nationalism, isolationism and protectionism – and a frighteningly large part of the American people love him for it.
The author provides a clear picture of how the emotional power of Trump's messy message exacerbated the divisions that have erupted in the American people over the past two, three, maybe four decades. The suggestive impact of Trump's conspiratorial message has also led the mind back to gloomy eras in recent history, including the Germans' fall to fascism in the 1930s. It popped up in many people's consciousness when the mob stormed Capitol Hill on January 6th. The violence in the attack, coupled with hints that Trump was planning a coup, has given rise to many dystopian future scenarios.
Hammer recalls the similarities between some of these historical features, but he nuances the picture and opens up for a more promising perspective for tomorrow. Above all, he has faith in the common sense of the average American – and sees features in the United States' historical development that provide a good breeding ground for faith in tomorrow.
Right now, however, it is uncertain what it will take to fill the void left by Donald Trump's term. Newly installed President Joe Biden have a large and complex task job to do. As Hammer suggests, it is one thing to have to normalize society and get the political processes back on track. This applies (among other things) to environmental policy and relations with international bodies such as the UN and NATO. A completely different thing is the fundamental need to reverse the very development that created the dissatisfaction, the frustration, the inconsolability, the hopelessness and above all the mistrust, all this that became Donald Trump's platform. If we choose to see Trump more as a symptom than a cause, the division in the electorate will have to be seen as a profound societal problem.
And it takes a lot of new thinking and profound changes of attitude to get rid of it, we must believe.