The triumph of Trumpism in the US: Just how the hell could that happen?

The big political takeaway from the US presidential election is not who won it. It isn’t even whether Donald Trump won or lost. That the deserving candidate is well on his way to winning is a fact. But going ahead, in terms of the impact on the future politics of America and other democracies around the world, including India, is that Donald Trump received almost half of all popular votes, or just about 48 per cent. Now just how the hell could that happen?

More questions follow. Why have nearly 70 million (seven crore) Americans voted for a man seen as a buffoon, maniac, greedy, power-hungry, corrupt, a serial sexual harasser, tax dodger and somebody who arguably weakened the country globally and nearly ceded its pre-eminence as the global superpower in a unipolar world to China? Or at least that is everything we read, heard and watched on globally respected media not just based in the US, but also Financial Times, and more.

This is also what almost every think tank worth its logo told us for four years. Every pollster, psephologist, chastened by having been shown up by Mr Trump in 2016, pre-scripted an easy win for Mr Biden. They also promised us a blue wave sweeping him and the detritus of his “reprehensible” politics away into the gutter of American political history.

Did anybody imagine he would make the race this tight, that so many voters would come out on his call in spite of the pandemic, that he will still wrest Florida, North Carolina and take Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Nevada to the wire? Donald Trump? The proven lunatic?

Just what’s wrong with us Americans? That’s a question we would hear often. It is also a political point that will endure even more than this result. Imagine this result as if the coronavirus pandemic had not hit the world and handled so badly by Mr Trump in America. Wouldn’t he then have swept this election in a giant red wave that would redefine not just America’s but he world’s politics?

That is the scenario Narendra Modi and his counsels had conjured up when he walked around holding Mr Trump’s hand up at ‘Howdy, Modi!’ in Texas. Nobody then knew there was the virus in the works in Wuhan. Except, on the outside of the realm of possibility, Xi Jinping. We won’t know.

It is an arguable point that America’s handling of the pandemic has been the worst in the world. Others have tried to compete, like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, but fade away in comparison. Trump’s America wins on sheer data. And once you add the fact that his country has the most extensive and modern health infrastructure for any large country, how he trivialised the challenge, plugged unproven prescription drugs at his press conferences, even was caught by the virus, there will be only one description for his performance: Shambolic. It deserves to be put in all capital. But the reason we are shy of doing that is, we do not want anything in ‘National Interest’ looking like a Trump tweet.

And yet in town after town away from the metros, in village after village, especially in ‘red’ heartland America, very comparable in its policy affiliations to India’s Hindi heartland, people in the worst affected places, states and counties have come out in greater numbers than ever before, and voted for Trump. What kind of people vote for their confirmed tormentor?

The reason we call this the most important takeaway from this election is that it underlines a growing, and whether we like it or not, maturing phenomenon in democracies.

That is, if a demagogue has the skill and the cheek to build a dominant majority’s latent insecurities into a persecution complex, he can build an impregnable base. See, for example, the incurable minority complex of the Hindus in India. Especially in the Hindi region and two key states of the western region, Gujarat and Maharashtra.

Mr  Trump, like Mr Modi in India, waded in to take over a conservative party of the Right and completely rewrote its philosophy, ideology and agenda around the most marketable aspects of his own personality.

Both have challenged — and mocked — political correctness and elitism, though in their own different ways. Both have succeeded in prising the working classes, even the so-called underclass away from their ossified, old Left-Socialist fortresses.

The standout Trump statement in that angry speech, bordering on the deranged in fact, was his call to the working classes, the workers of America. How similar is that to the new politics Mr Modi has built at least for the past 6 years, always seeming to be doing something for the poor, delivering it efficiently and vacuum-cleaning the upper crust with ever higher taxes.

Mr Trump has taken the Republican Party by the neck and dumped everything it stood for: Free trade, liberal immigration, globalisation, low tariffs, worldwide power projection and policing, everything except low taxes. Mr  Modi is changing and course-correcting now, woken up by an economy in free fall, but his first six years have not been any different. The BJP used to be a party, we thought, of free enterprise, privatisation, low taxes, wealth creation and so on. All that was put in the freeze except, a more hearty embrace of the West, especially America.

We talk about Mr Modi and his politics often enough. So, let’s keep the focus on Mr Trump and what his political success teaches. We call it success because, at the risk of sounding repetitive, we need to underline that despite doing so much wrong on governance and against the grain of his own party’s ideology and principles, he still had half of America turn up and vote for him.

Illustration: Binay Sinha
America has now seen the rise of a new ideology: Trumpism. Given the way he is, even if defeated, he won’t fade away like traditional American former presidents. Because nothing about him is traditional. As a political phenomenon, he is sui generis. You’ve got to live with his legacy. And not just in America. Because politicians across the democratic world will learn from him. What kind of a man enters politics so late in life, in something called the Grand Old Party, and founds an ideology all his own. His shadow will not easily leave the Republicans. Nor would his family.

The finest minds in American and Western media, with all their political experience and scholarship, failed to adequately appreciate Trumpism’s impact just as so many of us in India can’t fathom, or accept Moditva’s.

Could that be because our analysis still carries an overload of the notion that the only way of keeping winning is to make people better off. Didn’t Bill Clinton tell us, “It’s the economy, stupid”? If so, how could Modi get an even bigger majority in 2019 in an already struggling economy, or Trump so many votes exactly on the day his country was counting its second-highest number of coronavirus cases?

Let’s flip that question. Alright, you can’t make your people better off. But can you make them feel better? That is where the more touchy-feely, emotional aspect of culture, religion and identity comes in. At this point in democratic politics across borders, that is winning. That is why even a Centrist like Emmanuel Macron is talking the way he is. Rising wokeness is the fuel of this demagogy it holds in contempt and seeks to oppose.

Mark the words the famous CNN anchor Andersen Cooper used for Trump: An obese turtle lying belly up on the beach in the sun. How do you think does Trump’s base see it? Of course, as evidence that all Trump says about elitism is right. It is the same way when the English-speakers here laugh at Modi for not being able to spell ‘STRENGTH’ correctly. It makes his base, built on cultural identity and abhorrence of elitism even more loyal. Trump, if anything, has been made fun of a million times more than this. And in public, not whispers. Now you know why nearly half of America, a lot of it working class, still turns up to vote for him.

 
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