(Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images)

January 29, 2024   9 mins

As America inches ever closer to its next election, the rest of the world is now forced to face the fact that Donald Trump is almost guaranteed to be the Republican nominee, and the favourite to return to the White House. It wasn’t supposed to be this way: surrounded by scandal and dogged by several attempts to imprison him through lawfare, he ought to have been weak coming into 2024. But all attempts to stop him have failed. This time around, he was challenged by half a dozen political opponents contending for the Republican nomination. Trump, refusing to even attend any of their debates, handily crushed them all.

To many on both the Left and the Right, this is an almost inconceivable state of affairs. His popularity seems nearly impossible to justify, and thus people come up with equally fantastical or belittling explanations for his success. To some, Trump appears like some sort of hypnotist, a snake charmer who has simply mesmerised much of the electorate. To others, the “explanation” begins and ends with concluding that Americans have simply gone insane.

But America hasn’t gone insane, nor is Trump — a man who has occasionally been booed at his own rallies, even by his own most loyal supporters — some sort of hypnotist. The appeal of Trump in 2024 is quite different from the Trump that rode down that golden escalator eight years ago and promised to “Make America Great Again”. In fact, you don’t hear that particular slogan chanted very much at all these days. This might seem paradoxical, but it really is not: as the belief in “MAGA” has waned, the power and appeal of this new Trump has only waxed. This is no longer a man who promises to make America great again — and this is precisely the reason why many American voters still feel that they need him.

The growing constitutional crisis now taking place on the border between Texas and Mexico illustrates this dynamic. The governor of the Lone Star State, Greg Abbott, recently did something truly audacious: he mustered the Texas National Guard and ejected federal border patrol agents from a piece of the border. This was a clear breach of both written and unwritten rules in today’s America, but Abbott persisted, claiming the migration crisis was simply too great to ignore. But as the Biden administration offered Texas a 24-hour ultimatum to stand down, with an implied threat of seizing federal control over Texas’ National Guard if he did not, around half of the governors of the US’ 50 states openly pledged their support to Abbott. Trump himself took to social media to urge every loyal governor to send their own national guardsmen to Texas to shore up Abbott’s efforts to plug the hole in the border, federal government be damned.

Some observers have dismissed this all as a form of political theatre, a showy gimmick to shore up votes in the upcoming election. But it is far more serious than that, and it has its roots in unresolved political fault lines that go back nearly 200 years. To introduce those fault lines, it’s useful to look at a somewhat similar example outside of America: Japan’s great 19th-century revolution, where the centuries-long rule of the Shoguns finally ended.

A very quick history lesson is in order here. Towards the latter half of the 15th century, Japan’s Ashikaga Shogunate began falling apart, as various powerful feudal magnates began waging bitter feuds against each other. At the beginning of the 16th century, central power had collapsed, and Japan fractured into many small, mostly independent feudal states. This was the sengoku jidai, which is usually translated here in the West as “the warring states period”. This lasted for more than a century, until a succession of warlords managed to unite most of the country under their rule through a combination of war and diplomacy. By the year 1600, the battle of Sekigahara finally consolidated national hegemony in the hands of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who then went on to found the Tokugawa Shogunate, which lasted all the way to the revolution that finished it off in 1868.

What makes this little bit of Japanese history relevant to America today is that the events that took place in Japan in 1868 were, in more than one sense, merely a continuation of old grudges left over from 1600. Not every powerful samurai daiymo (feudal lord) supported Tokugawa’s side at Sekigahara, and the people who picked the wrong side back then (or simply tried to sit on the sidelines) were given a permanent black mark for the next 250 years. They became the tozama daimyo, the outsiders; as they were seen as politically unreliable, they were now permanently barred from holding higher office in the Japanese bureaucracy.

By the middle of the 19th century, however, Japan was no longer stable. It now suffered from a massive social crisis, as the Samurai only became poorer and the commoners became richer. It had been forcibly opened up to Western trade, and this led to massive inflation and economic instability. It also suffered from an invasion of foreigners, who by dint of their superior military technology, the Japanese could not stop. The issue of foreigners walking around Japan like they owned the place was particularly galling, and it was this issue that served up the spark for the Meiji revolution. But as the revolution started, the unsettled grudges from all the way back in 1600 came roaring back to life; the most dogged opponents of the Tokugawa shogunate turned out to be families such as the Mori, the Date, the Shimazu and the Uesugi: in short, the losers from 1600. A quarter of a millennium had passed since Sekigahara, but they had not forgotten those old slights.

When America fought its own civil war between the northern states and the southern confederacy, the issue at the heart of the dispute was slavery as an economic model, yes, but also something much more basic than that. The southern states genuinely believed that the United States had been formed in such a way that the federal government was meant to be a servant to the states, and not the other way around. They weren’t interested in spreading slavery to the north; they wanted to leave, indeed they asserted they had the right to leave the union if they wanted to.

This basic disagreement on the nature of the United States, the true role of the federal government and the prerogatives of the states has never truly been settled. As in Japan, overwhelming political might could suppress dissent effectively, but it could never make the dissenters truly renounce their point of view.

Underscoring this, too, were the major political transformations undergone by America since its inception. It wasn’t really supposed to be an empire, with hundreds of bases all over the globe. It wasn’t meant to invade the world and invite the world, or to play world police and to overthrow governments left and right. This is the extremely open secret at the heart of the American empire: it wasn’t actually meant to exist. But that empire does exist today, and for a very long time, dissent on the nature of what America should be has been both politically and militarily pointless. But that situation is now clearly changing, and as Texas sends its guardsmen to plug the hole in the American border, they are at the same time slowly unleashing those old grudges that America could only bury but never resolve.

When Abbott was presented with the demand to stand down, he published an open letter justifying his own actions. That letter was carefully written, and it was written specifically to resurrect old conflicts. Citing James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, he accused Biden’s government of illegally abandoning its duty to protect the states. Biden, sitting idly by as America faced an unprecedented migration crisis, was in fact refusing to defend Texas from an invasion. With the federal government having failed in this most basic task, the supreme legal right to self-defence reverted back to Texas, and thus Abbott was doing what the constitution allowed him to do — even demanded that he do — which was to protect Texas.

To invoke the constitution to justify your actions isn’t exactly a novel thing in America. But if one reads Abbott’s letter, it’s clear that the constitution he relies on is not the “modern” constitution. It is not the same document that is now being used to justify transgender rights, diversity and inclusion initiatives, or federal school lunch programmes. It is the constitution of a much older America; America from before the empire, before the civil war.

Just like Japan could sweep its more intractable problems under the rug for 200 years, only to have all those problems come out with a vengeance once its economy crashed and its military position weakened, so has America stuffed most of its own serious contradictions into the closet. But that only works as long as things are stable, and America today is seeing its empire crack and split apart. The federal debt is exploding, inflation is busy ruining people’s living standards, the country’s military dominance is slipping. Americans by and large no longer trust their own government: they think the country is heading in the wrong direction, the economy is terrible, and they increasingly see other Americans as enemies rather than people with whom they simply disagree with.

Even before Abbott invoked the ghosts of Madison and Hamilton to consecrate the Texas guardsmen’s defiant stand against the federal government at Eagle Pass, the ghosts of the American civil war were clearly already making their way back into popular consciousness. Statues depicting figures from the civil war — and even of founding fathers or older presidents — have increasingly become a flashpoint for a real political and cultural struggle. A low-intensity war on the past is now being waged across many states, but the removal or destruction of statues now only has one effect: to harden hearts and solidify the battle lines being drawn in the sand.

Consider how, in late 2023, a statue of confederate general Robert E. Lee was taken from its monument in Charlottesville, decapitated, and then melted down into ore, from which new art pieces were supposed to be created. The point here was to destroy the past and to usher in a new, better future. What happened afterwards is telling: pictures of Lee’s molten, red-hot face began circulating on the internet, and it was immediately appropriated as a symbol of resistance. Far from destroying the ghosts of the civil war, the statue’s desecration only roused them further from their long slumber — it only further sharpened the growing divide in America between an “us” and a “them”.

It is here that we must return to the meaning of Trump, and why so many people feel that he is still needed, even in 2024. If one looks past the fairly dishonest slander by his many critics, it’s pretty obvious that Trump’s basic message in 2016 was one of hope. America was broken, the forever wars were based on a lie, the dollar didn’t buy as much as it once did. Sure: all of that was true, and Trump proclaimed that he was the only one who dared to say this openly. But he was also the only one, according to himself, who could fix these things. America used to be great; vote for Trump, and it would be made great again.

That hope is mostly gone now, and it is not the focal point of Trump’s campaign. There isn’t much point in making “America” great again in 2024, because by now it is becoming increasingly clear that there is no such thing as a singular “America” that is capable of being made great. There are in fact now different Americas, completely separate and irreconcilable ideas of what the basic political dispensation should be. This was of course also true back during the period when America fought its bloody civil war. Back then, one particular America silenced all the competition, for the simple reason that it was victorious on the battlefield. But now the American empire is fraying, and more and more people sense that it can’t be revived. In other words, suddenly, the old rules no longer have to apply: those old grudges that were hidden and papered over by a century of military and economic dominance are now rapidly becoming relevant again.

The result is that it is now a very open question whether the federal government can succeed in a tug of war with a state such as Texas. Many people are calling for Biden to federalise the Texas National Guard and order them to stand down, as happened during the struggle over segregation half a century ago. But with 25 other governors pledging support — some even pledging to send their own national guard detachments as reinforcements — the Biden administration can’t guarantee victory.

But even if this particular showdown over a piece of Texan real estate ends inconclusively (as it is quite likely to do), the problem will not really been solved. Once states begin to openly defy the federal government, reasserting old forgotten political rights from centuries ago, it’s almost impossible to pretend it didn’t happen. If Biden wins re-election, these sorts of open acts of defiance will become more, not less common. If Trump wins, democrats are likely to become even more fervent champions of states’ rights than the republicans themselves. Either way, obstructionism and paralysis are likely to rule the day — both in the leadup to the 2024 election, and for very long afterwards.

Why then, does Trump keep winning? What is the “secret sauce” that makes people want to rely on him, even though his flaws and failures are extremely well-known at this point? It’s not because he promises to make the current America great again, not really. Trump isn’t going to reinforce all those hundreds of military bases, solve the recruitment crisis, and make sure the next couple of forever wars are ran competently this time. The empire probably can’t be saved at this point; almost everyone now senses that some sort of massive break is coming. And if the empire does break, if the “America” that shunted all competitors aside just like Tokugawa Ieyasu sidelined all those other samurai clans after Sekigahara, what follows will be a war for the future: a war between all those different Americas.

The Trump of 2024 is radically different from the Trump of 2016. Then, people hoped he could fix what was clearly in the process of breaking apart. Now, people instead turn to him for a very different reason: because they think that in the days to come, when America begins the struggle against itself, Trump will hopefully be the one guy actually fighting for their America.

As far as hopes go, the hope now being invested into Donald Trump’s third run at the presidency isn’t particularly optimistic. But is it crazy or irrational? Hardly.

Malcom Kyeyune is a freelance writer living in Uppsala, Sweden