Donald Trump has always intuitively known that what people feel is far more important than the facts. Tapping into feelings, especially when people are anxious about losing jobs or feel left behind and disregarded, is extremely powerful. This is what Hitler did so successfully when he caught the humiliation and shame of defeated Germany and promised to make the country a world power through racial purging.

The promise of getting rid of supposedly weak or threatening social elements in order to re-empower the population remains a powerful promise today. Trump’s credo was that as long as you belonged to his tribe, you would be protected – much like traditional mafia rules of membership.

If we disregard the insecurities that make people seek a protective group to belong to, we will continue to miss the point and fail to heal similar divisions that are emerging across the world, including in the UK, Europe and eastern Europe. Populism is generally understood as “the people” against “the elite”. But when American populism first appeared in the late 19th century it was tied to the promotion of democracy and engaging those outside the establishment in political decision-making.

Today’s populism is markedly different, though antipathy towards elites remains a driving force. The “elites” are often rightly seen as wealthy, privileged and having little regard for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Meanwhile, ours is a fast-changing, increasingly globalised world, in which people fear losing livelihoods due to new technologies, losing a way of life in which the expectation was that if you worked hard you could do well, and losing pride in the United States as an economic and military world leader. These losses have threatened what many Americans see as their basic identity. Trump’s mantra, “Make America Great Again!” was about turning the clock back and restoring an old way of life based on an idea of what it meant to be American.

Economically, Trump’s attempts to ward off loss were remarkably successful. His first three years as President produced significant economic growth which according to US journalist Christopher Caldwell, resulted in “the first sustained downward redistribution of income and wealth since the last century, a vindication for voters in the forgotten parts of the country who voted for Mr Trump in 2016”.

However, these immediate economic benefits cannot be sustained in a rapidly-changing world of inter-dependent economies. Restoring things to how they used to be may be appealing during uncertain times, but it’s not the same as a vision of the future. It is world in stasis, defending itself against change, loss and the invasion of the new. It is the promise of a narcissistic bubble that will protect everyone who remains inside. Trump’s slogan, “America First” quickly morphed into “America Only”.

Walls – concrete and metaphorical – are also ways of keeping the country intact, of sealing the bubble. Trump’s Mexican wall was not only intended to keep out supposed criminals and rapists from abroad, it signified keeping out anyone who is not “American”, keeping out what is “other”, impure and different. This is a far cry from the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty welcoming immigrants to America: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

In trying to understand the roots of US populism, many critics point to what they see as the demise of the American Dream – the dream of a country that enables everyone to get rich. However, the American Dream as set out by its founding Fathers states that all men are created equal with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is a dream of equal opportunities and equal justice for all. Only since the aftermath of the First and Second World Wars has the American Dream become specifically associated with the accumulation of wealth.

The liberal left warned that a Trump election victory would effectively have signalled the end of democracy. In fact, it would have signalled the end of political ideology. Some 72 million US voters were, as far as we know, primarily concerned with keeping taxes low and keeping police on the streets. These are not typically political ideals; taxation and internal safety enable states to govern and pay for civic services.

When movements like populism are devoid of ideology and fuelled by anxiety, maintaining the status quo becomes paramount. It displaces values and beliefs about what kind of society we want to live in and leave for our children. Perhaps the failure of democracy is that it works during times of prosperity and growth – but only up to a point. When inequality results, it is in danger.

Following November’s presidential election, Trump’s former communications director Anthony Scaramucci admitted he’d accepted the White House appointment out of pride and ambition. After being fired, he’d had the psychological insight to realise he was suffering from “cognitive dissonance”. Basically, he’d been trying to do a job based on a premise he didn’t believe in. Now, he acknowledged, there would need to be a reckoning for the way Trump had captured so many voters’ imaginations. “We better wake up as a society and recognise that there’s a problem,” he said. “We need to make the lives of those 76 million Americans more aspirational so they can drop [Trump].”

Scaramucci goes to the heart of what is ailing the United States (and indeed other countries around the world) and threatening further conflict and polarisation. When a group’s aspirations are to stay as they are in the face of inevitable change, they become vulnerable not only to despair but to extinction – and to violence as a survival tactic. Without a vision of the future and without political beliefs and ideals of the kind of society we want to be part of, we are truly lost. As Scaramucci urges, we need to find a way of making people believe in a new future, a future that includes them and will be shaped by them and to which we can all aspire.

Trump’s most powerful weapon has been the lies he has told. Will Joe Biden be able to create new hope for a future in which people do not need to rely on lies but can be told the truth?

Coline Covington’s new book, For Goodness Sake: Bravery, Patriotism and Identity, is published by Phoenix, £26.99