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Fragile States Index: The Trump Effect on U.S. Stability

The U.S. is the fourth most-worsened country on the 2018 Fragile State Index. Trump’s presidency embodies the country’s current political deadlock and instability, and is likely to impact this upcoming midterm elections.

Written by Flora Bagenal Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Debbie Rieger heads to the voting booth to cast her ballot at Hillsboro Old Stone School November 07, 2017, in Purcellville, VA. Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Arthur Jones is a septuagenarian Holocaust denier and a lifetime supporter of the white supremacist movement in the U.S. Last month, he won the Republican primary in the Third Congressional District in Illinois, despite being denounced as a Nazi by members of his own party.

He’s not the only fringe candidate attempting to pull the Republicans to the extreme right in this year’s U.S. midterm elections.

There’s also Patrick Little, another Holocaust denier who says he wants to “remove the Jews from power,” polling second in the California senate race. In Wisconsin, Paul Nehlen, a white nationalist, is trying for the second time to be elected to Congress. And in Arizona, 85-year-old former sheriff Joe Arpaio – notorious for his brutal treatment of Latino and black inmates – is running for Senate.

Country data and trends for the United States in the 2018 Fragile State Index. (Fund For Peace)

The United States may be one of the most economically secure countries in the world, but in this year’s Fragile States Index (FSI), it is the fourth most-worsened country compared to 2017. The results are a reflection of trends on the ground, including a rise in political extremism as well as gridlocking among national leaders, increased social unrest, police violence and an increased risk of terrorism.

To calculate a country’s overall fragility, the FSI, created by the Fund for Peace, gives each state a score on 10 for 12 social, economic, cohesion and political indicators. Over the past 10 years, no country’s average scores for cohesion indicators (factionalized elites; security apparatus; and group grievance) have performed as badly as the United States. That puts the U.S. ahead of several war-torn countries including Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Country data and trends for the United States in the 2018 Fragile State Index. (Fund For Peace)

Since 2008, the U.S. Group Grievance score increased from 3.2 to 6.1, and its Factionalized Elites score rose from 2.0 to 5.8.

While America has been becoming increasingly more fragile over the past 10 years, according to the FSI, the pace has quickened since President Donald Trump took office. During former President Barack Obama’s last year in the White House it was the 13th-worsened country, according to the index. The U.S. fluctuated between the 158th and 159th spot in the global ranking through both of Obama’s terms, but ranked 154th this year.

“We’ve seen a bubbling up of extremism on the right under President Trump,” says Jared Holt, a journalist who tracks right-wing extremism in the media. “There’s less compromise on a lot of social and political issues, and that is also a factor in the social unrest we’ve seen lately.”

Country data and trends for the United States in the 2018 Fragile State Index. (Fund For Peace)

The rise of radical politics has been matched with a rise in political violence and hate crime, also contributing to America’s poor performance on the Fragility index.

“Most supporters of the alt-right are aware that ideas like white supremacism are probably not going to become mainstream popular,” says Holt. “Their goal is to shift political discourse further into extremism.”

“They call it trickle-up,” he added.

Last year, several public demonstrations turned violent including a Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina, during which a woman was killed when a fascist sympathizer drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. At a demonstration on the Berkeley campus last August, a coalition of anti-fascist groups sparked outrage when they set upon pro-Trump supporters with knives and sticks.

A February report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremism, found 950 hate groups active in the U.S. last year, including more than 600 groups aligned with white supremacists and just over 200 aligned with black nationalists.

The U.S. scored significantly worse in the index’s State Legitimacy indicator this year compared to 2017. Despite controlling both houses, Trump has had few legislative victories, weakening the government’s influence domestically and abroad.

Trump has repeatedly tried and failed to implement a travel ban on citizens of countries deemed security threats. He has also had little success in receiving funding for the border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Instead of seeking compromise, Trump stiffened his stance on key domestic policies including immigration, tax and healthcare, further alienating the moderate middle.

The upcoming midterm elections could prove a turning point, not just in shaping Trump’s presidency, but in shaping the American political landscape and overall stability for years to come.

If the Democrats win control of either the House or the Senate, that could severely restrict the Republican agenda, and give the Democrats more power to investigate Trump over his alleged ties to Russia.

Even if the Republicans keep their majority, there are some people on both sides of the political divide who are skeptical that Trump’s issue-based, divisive politics and the resulting political deadlock can continue.

Peter Leyden is the CEO and founder of a new media startup Reinvent, which promotes discussion within the tech community about solutions for the future. He argues that Trump’s presidency is a “last gasp” of a conservative era that will have long-term consequences for the Republican Party. He points to California, with its innovative tech industry and forward-looking politics, as an example that the rest of the country is destined for a more politically and socially stable future.

“What’s happening now with Trump happened in California 15 years ago,” he says.

“We had a dysfunctional state that was so politically polarized nothing could get done … and people were extremely frustrated. So we elected a celebrity populist, with no experience of government – Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

The experiment, Leyden points out, did not end well for Schwarzenegger or the Republican Party. The party’s obsession with tax cuts at any cost, denial of climate change and hostility to immigration ended up alienating almost everyone. California’s young, college-educated, politically engaged and increasingly racially diverse population rebelled surprisingly quickly and pushed the state in a much more progressive direction.

“Californians are practical people, they want to get stuff done, and Americans are like that, too, at their heart,” says Leyden. He argues that, like in California, this is true of millennials in particular.

In California, the conservatives were decimated, and are now facing the possibility of not having a candidate on the November ballot for governor or senator. Leyden predicts a similar fate for the national GOP.

“The damage Trump is doing now is multigenerational,” he says. “He could take down the Republican Party for 50 years.”

If Leyden is right, then the U.S.’s current state of fragility could represent a peak political deadlock, and the country could soon enter a new dawn of progressive politics, bipartisan cooperation and political stability.

“The stakes are huge,” says Leyden. “The world is changing in ways that are beyond the control of governments or politicians. What we’re witnessing is an extreme reaction to that change, but the reaction cannot stop change from happening.”

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