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By Martin Liptrot

By Martin Liptrot

A week in America | 1 May 2024

This week, Martin shares his thoughts on elections taking place across the globe and why nationalism is a worry for economists but so popular with political campaigners...

2024 is the ‘Year of Democracy’.

While the world still looks like a very dangerous place with theocrats, autocrats and dictators popping up everywhere, the biggest and oldest democracies in the world are all holding ‘free and fair’ votes to elect their leaders.

Across the year and around the globe, nearly half of the world’s population will head to the polls in 64 nations to participate in elections which will shape our social, political, and economic future.

Significant elections are taking place in India – the mother of all democracies – The UK, South Africa, Mexico and The European Union, while on the island of Taiwan, the election of a new president will be monitored closely in Beijing.

Of course, there are some shady operations too.

Why does North Korea bother? Putin’s Russia will vote and no-one is in any doubt of the outcome, Bangladesh only has one party on the ballot, while Pakistan has banned opposition parties and locked up the hugely popular former President and cricket legend Imran Khan.

And, of course, the blockbuster – Biden vs Trump: The Sequel – will hit our screens on November 5th this year.

As it stands, according to the polls I review, former President Trump is heading back to the White House.

He leads not only in most of the key swing states, but also has the edge in many of the demographic sets and subsets poll-watchers think may be decisive. And just as surprisingly, even though Trump has huge legal and financial woes to navigate before we get to election day, polls reveal his impending bankruptcies and convictions don’t appear to be worrying voters across the union.

Is trust in politicians now so low, we no longer care if they are honest or not?

Speaking to political campaign managers and public affairs representatives in Manchester earlier this week, I tried to explain why, even though I thought Trump and his campaign had obvious failings and shortcomings, they must be taken seriously.

First, America matters.

Even though the US vote is at the tail-end of this monster year for elections, Trump and his influence appear to be exerting a gravitational pull on many other ballots taking place.

One key factor in nearly all the 2024 elections is the battle or balance between nationalistic, populist campaigns versus those professing the need for collaborative and cooperative international relations to tackle the shared problems we all face.

Votes in Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Romania, Moldova, Belgium and the European Parliament have all seen populist candidates espousing far-right nationalism and raising ‘identity politics’ to levels not seen for generations.

While Europe has a worrying history with such political views and tribalism, it isn’t alone.

In India, PM Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has strong links with the RSS – a Hindu nationalist paramilitary organisation – accused of being behind many attacks on Muslim-owned businesses and mosque burnings and founded on a belief in ‘Hindu supremacy’.

American nationalism, however, has traditionally been a more complex concept.

While we do still get candidates claiming to be direct descendants of the people who arrived on the Mayflower – many of whom were religious zealots – or waving Confederate battle flags as a sign of their ‘heritage’ – the vast majority of those seeking political office recognise that a nation built on mass immigration and reliant on the power of the dollar for global trade, world financial systems and economic prowess, can’t hide behind a wall and entirely distance itself from everyone else.

The symbiotic needs of America and the rest of the world demand a more nuanced enunciation of these beliefs.

For many, American nationalism is rooted in the idea of what defines an American, especially a ‘true-American”. It is fed by the idea of American exceptionalism, that the politics, experiences, and values of the United States are unique in human history.

America’s first President George Washington defined citizenship as only being open to ‘free white men of good character’ and while this ethnic and gender-based view has thankfully been reviewed, cultural nationalism still sees religion, language, history, and symbolism as significant.

The other main flavour is civic nationalism. Here, the values of being an American are central to the concept.

Open to anyone irrespective of their race, creed, religion or language, civic nationalists hold a political identity which connects those who believe in the liberal democratic values of freedom, equality and individual rights. Liberals and Libertarians share this uncomfortable space.

Trump, I would argue, cares nought for either of these interpretations.

He is focussed on winning an election and his advisers know he needs the support of African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, people of all faiths and none, as much as those who trace their roots back to Christian Europe if he is to fulfil what he believes is his destiny, a return to the White House.

While his supporters may be drawn from the large numbers of Americans who subscribe to both or either of these nationalist views, especially those who are angry about how life has panned out for them, Trump and the idealogues who surround him are ‘economic nationalists’ first.

Economic nationalism – aka Trumpism – is the belief that government exists to promote and safeguard a nation’s economic interests within the global context. It is based on generating policies aimed at defending the American economy in the face of international competition and challenges. It proudly boasts ‘America First’. If, as a by-product of this policy, Trump, his family, friends and supporters are the beneficiaries of that stance – all the better.

Trump’s team saw Chinese expansion as a threat and sanctions and tariffs were imposed to slow and derail China’s technological advances. Chinese firms were banned from bidding for or winning telecoms contracts, their software and hardware was declared a ‘national security threat’ and global tech, bio-tech, and entertainment firms were advised they should look elsewhere to locate their supply chains.

Whether these policies did much to help or hinder American businesses operating on a multinational scale is up for debate, but the idea that protectionism is a valid tool has survived beyond Trump’s first stint as Commander in Chief. I’d argue that Biden embraced this thinking in his landmark Inflation Reduction Act by giving tax breaks to reshoring jobs, and favourable conditions for investments in chip manufacturing and domestic supply chains. The current wheeze is to force Chinese-owned but Cayman Island-based TikTok’s owner to sell itself to US shareholders.

Fraught with economic danger and accused of triggering global instability, economic nationalism is troubling for many.

But it still remains popular with campaign chiefs. Why? Because it reaches voters.

As with so much of the argument made from the hard-right these days – it appears to be a simple solution to a complex challenge.

It is also easy to package and sell.

Trump’s version of economic nationalism is a zero-sum game – ‘either we win, or they win’.

It’s a game to the death – “You are either with us or against us”

Trump’s campaign will challenge the electorate to choose.

Perfect for framing an election in these divisive and polarised times.

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Martin Liptrot

Martin Liptrot is a Public Affairs, PR and Marketing consultant working with UK, US and Global clients to try and ‘make good ideas happen’.

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