By Swapan Dasgupta
Donald Trump was being wilfully outrageous when he said last week that the United States should shut its doors on all Muslims—his response to the equally outrageous gunning down of civilians in California by a couple with a commitment to ISIS. Yet his approach was by no means unique. In falling back on polemical exaggeration, he was merely following a time-tested technique of protest: using drama to force attention on an issue. In effect, he was doing with words what the terrorists he so loathes do with guns or bombs.
To locate the billionaire aspirant for the Republican nomination in a familiar mould does not amount to condoning his shock and awe approach to conventional politics. Trump believes in showering all those who disagree with him or whose priorities are different with abuse. In that sense he is no different from the profane trolls who have brought social media into disrepute.
However, it is insufficient to be smug pillorying merely Trump for his abrasive articulation of issues—as many liberals are prone to doing. Despite the earlier predictions of the pundits that Trump will sooner or later shoot himself in the foot, there is now a creeping realisation that his outrageous remarks are having absolutely no impact on his popularity among a section of voters. He is, for the moment, maintaining his lead over other Republican hopefuls for the White House. And while his chances of winning the presidential election in November 2106 are not rated highly, some polls indicate he may secure as much as 40 per cent of the popular vote.
A Trump presidency is extremely unlikely but what is far more noteworthy is the fact that the protest he articulates so crudely is resonating in many other societies. Last week, the Front National led by the persuasive Marine Le Pen won major victories in the French provincial elections and outshone the traditional centre-right party. Le Pen, with her robust but more soberly articulated anti-immigration and anti-European Union message was the direct beneficiary of the public disquiet over the November 12 Paris massacre. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel who is seen as the personification of a new, cosmopolitan, (some would say) post-Christian Enlightenment has suddenly found that a significant section of ordinary Germans are not reacting too kindly to the sudden influx of a wave of refugees from Syria. A similar mood is also discernible even in Sweden, hitherto regarded as the citadel of uber-liberalism.
What binds these different expressions of unease and protest is the disturbing fact that they are being channelled through individuals or groups that were hitherto on the fringes or not even part of the political process. Trump, for example, is not a part of the traditional Republican establishment and a stranger to politics. Likewise, the Front National has traditionally been regarded as a neo-fascist, fringe group obsessed with archaic notions of French exceptionalism.
The implications are ominous. They suggest that in their readiness to conform to a pre-determined agenda that combines liberal priorities with stifling political correctness, the traditional politicians are often inclined to overlook concerns that smack of prejudice. This doesn’t affect those who have the clout and the access to get themselves heard in the right quarters. However, the little guy, whose views are often forged through direct experiences or even fear, and who lacks articulation, finds himself ignored and subjected to changes he never wanted. “We weren’t asked” is a common refrain of rooted individuals and communities who have seen their neighbourhood landscapes changes unrecognisably in their own lifetime. As traditional politicians mouth platitudes, this section feel alienated and look to those willing to acknowledge they have a case. The non-political Trump or the incessantly reviled Le Pen end up as unlikely heroes because the little guy with some genuine concerns for the future doesn’t like being patronised, talked down to and told by some member of the smart set that he is a bigot.
Trump and Le Pen are refusing to go away because they have raised issues that conventional politicians and even the media fear to take seriously. What we are witnessing is also a grassroots revolt against condescension. What are debunked as prejudices also matter.
Sunday Times of India, December 13, 2015