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State and Nation in American Politics

The USA, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) It is not exactly news that the American electorate has been extremely polarized over the last few years. As political scientists John Sides, Chris Tausanovich, and Lynn Vavreck point out, Americans are not only polarized, but they are also calcified, meaning they believe deeply in their positions and are very unlikely to change their minds. This is why over the last few years, pandemic, impeachment, violent events at the Capitol and indictments of Trump have had little effect on fundamental indicators like Trump’s approval ratings or generic ballots between Democrats and Republicans.

Defining the nature of that polarization is more difficult and important than simply noting that it is strong. It is also essential to avoid the false equivalencies that suggest that left-wing politicians like AOC or Bernie Sanders are the equivalent of deluded fascists like Marjorie Taylor Greene or Donald Trump. Similarly, understanding this polarization through a prism of left and right is unhelpful because the MAGA-dominated GOP is not exactly conservative in any broadly accepted understanding of the concept. A framework of fascism against democracy gets closer to the point, but too frequently those words are seen as platitudes and insults with meanings that are less clear.

A more useful way to understand this polarization is that it pits those supporting a modern democratic American state against those who believe in an ethnically and culturally defined nation. The fascist adjacent MAGA movement envisions the US as a country by, of, and for straight white Christians. That nationalist vision implies that the state should be in service of the white Christian nation. The MAGA movement, despite small numbers of people of color on its fringes, supports policies that promote that vision. The anti-woke sentiments, efforts to rewrite American history to support their white nationalism, support for the carceral state, and for giving a free hand to police in heavily non-white cities are all policies that follow from MAGA white nationalism.

In addition to being nationalist, the MAGA movement is anti-state. 

MAGA rhetoric, and at times actions, have sought to weaken, discredit and undermine the various structures and institutions of the American state. The MAGA movement sees the state, absurdly, as being captured by radical leftists seeking to destroy America. The primary evidence that leads them to conclude this is that various state agencies have sought to hold Donald Trump accountable for his many crimes. 

Donald Trump, for his part, has led the attack on the state. He has sought to discredit the judiciary and put an end to the rule of law while promoting a vision of eternal and nefarious deep-state plots and encouraging supporters to physically attack the Capitol.

When he was president, Trump assembled an administration led by cronies and family members who, with a few exceptions, knew virtually nothing about governance, while the White House became a hub of avarice and grift. 

If Trump becomes president again, his approach will be different. Rather than simply weaken the state, he plans to use the powers of the state to further his personal interest and that of his white nationalist movement. This is another form of attack on the state, one that seeks to destroy its independence and put it in service of one person and one movement.

Increasingly, opponents of Trump have relied on the state and hoped that the judiciary, in particular, will save American democracy. At various times this has manifested itself in the confidence that the Mueller Report, the two impeachments, or a legal proceeding would hamstring Trump and restore American democracy. Today this inclination manifests itself in the belief that the three-soon-to-be-four-indictments against Trump will bring an end to the fascist MAGA movement. Ultimately this is unlikely, but it reflects the deep belief in the state that has defined much of the opposition to Trump. 

In addition to seeing the state as a vehicle for restoring or rebuilding democracy, MAGA opponents believe that state power and policy can help solve the problems facing American society from climate change to wealth inequality.

Many critics of Trump believed the Mueller Report would end the Trump presidency.

The confidence that many critics of Trump have in the state reflects that while the MAGA movement is white nationalist and against the American state, the center-left is increasingly pro-state and anti-nation. More accurately, the center-left believes in an American nation that is not defined by whiteness and Christianity, but one that is multi-cultural. At the heart of what Ron DeSantis and other advocates of the new American fascism decry as wokeness is a belief that America is, and always has been, a deeply diverse and multi-cultural place and that our culture, social structures, conception of ourselves and government should reflect that.

Thus, our polarization is not about policy or even ideology, but about deeply different understandings of what America is and should be. 

One side wants America to be defined as a white Christian nation and is willing to continue to weaken the American state to achieve that goal. The other has a dramatically different understanding of the country, seeing is as made possible by a democratic state that reflects the preferences of a diverse and multi-national people. Moreover, both sides have built identities around their competing conceptions of what the US should be. The project of reconciling these visions is going to be extremely difficult because the very meaning and purpose of the country is at stake.

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