Opinion: Trump didn't create "Us vs. Them" -- it created him

In his new book, "Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism," Eurasia Group president and CBS News senior global affairs contributor Ian Bremmer writes about the growing nationalism around the world and support for anti-establishment politicians.


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"Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism" by Ian Bremmer 

No one voted for Donald Trump because he believed the United States was growing more secure and more prosperous. In a country where working-age men without jobs outnumber those with jobs by three to one, and half of unemployed men take daily pain medication, a lot of people want "change." It's hard to imagine what sort of future Americans can expect if the fate of these people is ignored.

It's easy to find fault with populists like Trump. He's obnoxious, dishonest, and incompetent. But Donald Trump didn't create "us vs. them". "Us vs. them" created Donald Trump, and those who dismiss his supporters are damaging the United States.

There are good reasons to want smaller government. It's natural to fear that Washington spends too much money. There are reasons to worry that political correctness will kill freedom of speech and the birth of good ideas. There are plenty of Americans who care sincerely about people with preexisting medical conditions, but who fear that creation of another entitlement program will one day bankrupt the country, leaving government without money to cover anyone.

These people aren't stupid or mean-spirited. They don't hate poor people. Some of them are poor people. Many are Americans who fear that intellect too often overrides common sense, that their countrymen are more interested in what they can get than in who will pay, that too many politicians care more about universal ideals than about American workers and their families, and that the country they knew is fading away.

Many Trump voters, including those who once supported Barack Obama, backed him because they wanted change. Actual change, not the kind of change promised on campaign posters. There's a working class in the United States that really has seen more losses than gains from free trade. U.S. infrastructure is crumbling, the country's education system is underperforming, its health care system is in real trouble, and the U.S. penal system doesn't work. American soldiers have fought and died in wars that seemed to accomplish nothing and that were never adequately explained to the American people.

These failures belong to the entire U.S. political establishment. Citizens feel lied to or ignored -- by politicians, the mainstream media, the business elite, bankers, and public intellectuals. They believe the game is rigged in someone else's favor, and they have a point.

American democracy itself is eroding. Donald Trump was elected president with votes from 26.3 percent of eligible voters.Hillary Clinton won 26.5 percent, but lost the electoral college. Yet here is the most revealing number: Nearly 45 percent of eligible American voters didn't vote at all.

Some didn't show up because they felt their vote represented a drop in the ocean, and some lived in states where the outcome wasn't in doubt. Others felt that none of the candidates could or would make things better. But many of these more than 100 million eligible American voters just didn't believe the outcome mattered. Just 36.4 percent of those eligible voted in the 2014 midterm congressional elections.

It gets worse. According to a study published in The Journal of Democracy, the share of young Americans who say it's important to live in a democratic country has dropped from 91 percent in the 1930s to 57 percent today. Fewer than one in three young Americans say that it's important to live in a democracy. In 1995, just one in sixteen Americans agreed that it would be "good" or "very good" to have military rule in the United States. In 2016, it was one in six.

Trump has made things worse. He has further poisoned the attitudes of his followers toward government and the media, inflicted lasting damage on U.S. ties with close allies, and embarrassed the country before the world. Worst of all, he has deliberately pitted Americans against one another for political gain. We see the polarized electorate in Trump's own poll numbers. His supporters have backed him through conflicts and controversies that would have ended the careers of any other public official, and his detractors wouldn't thank him if he pulled them from a burning building.

But when critics focus on the man and ignore the underlying emergencies that lifted him to the White House, they exacerbate the American problem of "us vs. them". They make it easier to build walls and harder to help those who need help most. It's much easier to mock Donald Trump, rail at his excesses, and caricature his backers than to work toward solutions to the problems that leave many convinced they have no future and that their fellow Americans don't care.

As in the United States, it's easy to demonize those Europeans who fear open borders as heartless racists who care nothing for refugees and hate Muslims. We can ignore those who say their governments have ceded too much power to bureaucrats in Brussels. But these people know that if they welcome unlimited numbers of migrants, they're inviting large numbers of people to risk their lives and those of their children to make the journey and that smaller European countries will struggle to manage the overflow. They're right that not all these migrants are truly refugees, and that encouraging so many to leave their home countries allows autocrats in North Africa and the Middle East to drive out those who don't support them. It is not racist to acknowledge that the best of intentions sometimes produce terrible consequences.

Further, democracy is undermined when growing numbers of the decisions that govern people's lives are made by people who don't stand for election within the borders of their countries. Attacking political demagogues like Beppe Grillo and Marine Le Pen is one thing. Dismissing the hopes and fears of those who turn to them exacerbates the problem of us vs. them and makes it more difficult to rework the European social contract in ways that both left and right can accept.

Challenges that are serious for the United States and Europe are even more daunting for developing countries. The introduction of automation and artificial intelligence into the workplace will create more turmoil for workers in wealthy countries, but it will be profoundly disruptive in the developing world, where there will be fewer factory jobs to pull less educated people from the countryside into the urban workforce. Governments without money to invest in technological innovation—and to upgrade education systems and retraining programs to help citizens profit from it -- will create fewer opportunities for young people. Social unrest will test the resilience of governments, and political officials will stoke more conflict between us and them to protect their own power and influence.

The result will be a widening of the divide between wealthy countries and poor ones -- and between rich and poor within each country. And if we focus mainly on the demagoguery of the populists who try to take advantage of these trends, we will only widen the gap between those who can afford to ignore them and those who can't.

There is another danger common to every nation on Earth.

Each year, human beings now produce more data than in every previous year combined.

The choices we make, particularly online, help algorithms understand our interests, wants, and needs better than our friends and families do. Add the reality that people are easy to influence. Fake news generated on the Internet shapes public perception in ways we still don't fully appreciate, and a coming wave of digitally sophisticated fake images and video will complicate things further.

It's not difficult to imagine a world in which technical specialists looking to make money help politicians looking to gain power understand and manipulate us in ways that undermine the political influence of citizens in every country.

Over time, people wise up. They become less easy to fool. But they can easily become more cynical, and that can lead them to turn their backs on politics altogether, leaving elections to be decided by the angriest and most opinionated.

In the meantime, there are choices to make. Build walls? Or rewrite the social contract? Both strategies can work in many countries, at least for a while. Both demand capable government with the resources to construct and sustain these systems. The construction of walls won't kill the idea of responsive government. It will simply create a form of digital apartheid that ensures some are well served while others aren't served at all. As in Israel. And, increasingly, as in the United States.

Reinvention of the social contract is going to be politically impossible in many countries for many years to come. The sense of crisis isn't yet strong enough, because so many globalists continue to profit from the system as it is, and walls of various kinds will protect them, temporarily, from real danger. Things have to become much worse, particularly for the winners, before they can become better for everyone else. This is the ultimate failure of globalism.

Where and when it becomes possible to experiment, efforts to rewrite the social contract will work most easily in countries with relatively homogenous societies, borders that face relatively little pressure, and the means to continually expand economic productivity. But this principle can work in any country where a positive political consensus is possible. Remaking the relationship between citizens and government is much more likely than the construction of walls to create lasting security and prosperity for the greatest number of people.

History and personal experience show that people give their best when the best is required of them. That day is coming sooner than we think. Even those who think they want war will change their minds when they see its costs. Human beings use their natural ingenuity to create the tools they need to survive. In this case, survival requires that we invent new ways to live together.

Necessity must again become the mother of invention.