The populist imperatives so much compressed American perception that they elected their chief executive who was hardly aware of the potency of divided opinion. He was singularly pandering to the wishes of the rightist fringe that is always present in a country but is kept under check by prudent middle-of-the-road policies of elected administrations. Trump pursued policies amenable to his ultra-rightist support base to the point that the base shifted due to the exceptional heat such a pursuance generated. The much-maligned US-Mexico wall was not worth deepening larger cleavages visible in American cultural and demographic matrix.
The wall fiasco has generated a rancorous debate about the inherent essentials of the country and has raised questions about the specific nature of American national existence. The debate now focuses on the fundamental question of America as a country and has opened up the vast and acrimonious field of societal values and collective conflicts. The most troublesome aspect is that this vital question has not been able to be addressed through time-tested legislative means that highlighted the existence of the model republic.
The wall highlighted the insecurity the Americans perceive within their own country and doubt the external influence as threatening to way of life. This is despite that fact that the American way of life is secure enough to be challenged as a vast number of people emulate it worldwide. Moreover, the American value of liberal democracy is now an accepted international order and certainly does not face any challenge within the country. The frenzy surrounding actions of the Trump administration testify to his isolated world view and certainly does not change the well-established cultural and demographic matrix of his country.
It should be kept in view that Trump’s extremism attracts only a minority and does not represent the cumulative view of the country. The wall controversy is ample proof of the self-serving policies of his administration. American value system is the sum-total of human urge for a liberal and soothing society pursued since the human race came into existence. The Americans are known as the advanced citizenship and they do possess countless virtues cementing their values.
Unfortunately, the wall issue helped to crystallise the cultural divide that is more formidable an impediment than rest of the issues confronted and settled by the country. It challenges the nation’s growing ethnic and racial diversity as it is now inhabited by one quarter of non-Caucasians. The ensuing demographic, cultural and even economic changes have become the central dividing line between the people of the country that is now badly split between political lines.
The partisan political base of both well-established parties run contrary to each other and it is an accepted phenomenon. The Republican ethos revolves around the groups exhibiting most unease and hostility about the big changes reshaping the country and comprises of older, blue-collar, evangelical and non-urban whites. The spirit exuded by Democrats is largely centered on the mostly urbanised groups that are most comfortable with these changes, particularly the younger generation, minorities and college-educated and secular white voters, especially women. In the case of the Mexico wall the traditional lines dividing the parties appear to have been reversed becoming worrying fault-lines.
The issue has caused widespread division between the opposite groups who view the impending changes respectively as rejuvenating the country or threatening its traditions. The impact is being fast created on divergent views on immigration, race and gender relations. The evidence is not very conducive as 41% of Americans support building the border wall, while 58% oppose it. It is not very surprising therefore that opinion about immigration’s impact on American society is largely dominant and has overtaken most other issues despite their relevance.
The controversy has broken open the fissures of the American societal existence as the notion appears quite widespread that immigrants burden local communities because they use too many public services. The unease of majority of Americans about co-existing with people coming from alien cultures has also been significantly highlighted. A growing number of Americans feel threatened from the immigrants eroding traditional American customs and values. The intensity of the feelings could be gauged from the fact that the overwhelming majority, over eight in 10, is in favour of banning immigration from some Muslim countries. Almost 8 out of 10 are against allowing further immigration.
Needless to say that such opinions are well and truly contested by almost an equivalent number of people. They disregard what other opinion insists upon that is a very natural attitude. They think that immigrants strengthen American society and oppose the growing xenophobia. The overriding sentiment emerging out of the current flux is that the wall opponents express enormous anxiety about the direction of social change in the country, while supporters are much more optimistic. This sentiment should be viewed in the backdrop that racial minorities will compose a majority of the nation’s population by around 2045. This fact was welcomed by a high margin of 82% of wall opponents who consider such change as mostly positive, while only 16% believed it will be negative. The worrying aspect, however, is that three-fourths of the wall supporters feel that the American way of life needs to be protected from foreign influence.
The last few decades have witnessed emphasis on race-relations and its protagonists have deliberately ignored other positive impacts created by a growing mixture of races. It has therefore become obvious that extremism has crept in the perceptions as both the sides produced almost exactly inverse responses on a query about attitudes on all the changes remaking American life. The situation has given rise to extremist sentiments particularly the one reflected by 59% of wall supporters who mention that things have changed so much that they often feel like strangers in their own country. This is a dangerous portent and it is required to be addressed more firmly.
While there is an urgent need to respond to the concerns among working-class whites related to economic and security implications of immigration but efforts should be made to take out the hostility tinge from it. Trump unfortunately created an impression that America is being threatened by invading dark people and hiding Islamic terrorists bent upon harming people at large. This painful distortion is required to be confronted. There is abject need to tackle insular racial attitudes that have fast repulsed the white Americans who now are very averse to the fundamental principle of their promised land.
The rising tide of populist sentiment has made it difficult to arrive at any consensus about the evolving nature of American identity. Such divisions are creeping up in the western world as Brexit portrays where even while people coming from Eastern Europe compelled voters to get out of the European Union. Britain, however, is now facing the backlash as realism has ultimately triumphed but the enormous damage caused to the European fabric will take time to mend. American social matrix may be well served if it ventures to demolish its rising internal walls because it does not have the luxury of confining itself within its boundaries as Britain perceived to do although unsuccessfully. TW
M Ali Siddiqi is a writer who contributes to leading periodicals