By Swapan Dasgupta
Maybe it’s a problem of existing in our own ‘safety zones’—used these days as a synonym for ideological bubble. Maybe it’s because we unconsciously divide the world into ‘good’ and ‘evil’—a very un-Hindu temptation. Whatever the underlying reason, my own experience suggests that it is impossible to have a reasonable conversation on the subject of Donald Trump, the clear favourite to win the Republican nomination for November’s presidential election in the United States.
From the billionaire-turned-politician’s perspective, the fact that he is already known to both his own country and overseas is a great achievement. His remaining Republican opponents, including Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, are by comparison lesser known, at least outside the US. Almost every drawing room across the world now has an opinion of Trump.
However, the awareness of Trump is, alas, based on notoriety. He is unquestionably foul-mouthed, and some of his utterances would be considered deeply offensive, even by normal, non-politically correct standards. Making fun of people’s appearances, while the norm in men’s changing rooms, cannot be regarded as kosher by the standards of either the Left or the Right. Sometimes, even by his permissive standards he went just too far. In 2015, he had to delete a comment on Hilary Clinton from his Twitter handle: “If Hilary Clinton can't satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America?” It was a remark that was clearly beyond the pale, and unacceptable in public life.
There are other facets of Trump that are trouble those who feel. His comment on Mexican immigrants is just a small example of the candidate’s desire to be wilfully outrageous: “What can be simpler or more accurately stated? The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists…” Likewise, his suggestion that there should be a total ban on any more Muslims entering the US drew so much international flak that many European countries considered banning his entry.
The uniqueness of Trump, to international audiences at least, is that his promise to make America great again contains baggage that doesn’t quite fit existing political containers. He has rubbished Global Warming, the vaccine programme, gestures towards the Third World and called for the creation of a Fortress America—a far cry from the opportunity society whose appeal resonated all through the world.
Had Trump been merely another eccentric American billionaire with just too much money to burn, interest in his outrageous utterances would have been limited. But there are two complications.
First, Trump’s fulmination against a smug Establishment that despises the common man and mocks common decencies has struck a chord. His nomination as the Republican candidate isn’t as yet assured but unless the Establishment gangs up to stop Trump at all costs at the party convention, American politics could take an interesting turn. The exit polls at the different state primaries clearly show that Trump draws his strength from the less-prosperous white working classes, particularly those who combine a self-pride in being hardworking and patriotic with a loathing for the la di dah cosmopolitanism prevalent in Ivy League cabals that rule America. Trump’s articulation is undeniably crude and excessively pugnacious. But it would appear that it is precisely his uninhibited forthrightness that is at the root of his appeal. A significant slice of America wants to be rude, and kick a seemingly uncaring Establishment in the butt. The numbers of those angry enough to endorse Trump is sizable enough to offset a vicious, negative campaign mounted by an emerging Stop Trump coalition that includes a powerful section of the media.
Secondly, the ability of Trump to first secure the Republican nomination, unite the party, get enough crossover votes and finally beat the Democratic Party nominee in November are themes that will be discussed in the coming months. Having been written off as a maverick and even a buffoon from the day he entered the race, Trump has surprised the pundits and pollsters with his ability to turn ridicule to advantage. Every suggestion that he has peaked has been accompanied by unexpected surges in support. My own feeling is that while still the underdog if he enters the final race against Hilary Clinton, Trump will not be wanting in terms of the sheer energy of his supporters. But whether this leads to a repetition of the Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964 against President Lyndon Johnson is worth tracking. In any case, Trump is not quite the non-starter that the media often make him out to be.
Indeed, there is a very serious problem in both the outsiders’ and the media coming to terms with the dynamism and energy of the Trump campaign. There is an overdose of the shortcomings of the billionaire and an unending narration of his status as an outlander—a prejudice that, ironically, adds to Trump’s reputation for being authentic—but there is no attempt to get under the skin of the Trump supporter. The harsh truth is that most of the newsrooms and faculty lounges that determine ‘conventional wisdom’ have probably never met a Trump supporter socially or professionally. They are unsure of what breed of humans they are dealing with. The obsessive preoccupation with minorities and ethnic groupings has contributed to the organised disavowal of communities whose idea of nationhood is both steeped in tradition and also real. In his Who Are We? published in 2004, Samuel P. Huntington had observed the growing erosion of the Judaeo-Christian underpinnings of America. The Trump phenomenon is a crude explosion of ‘white’ anger to keep America what it was.
This failure to appreciate that reality isn’t necessarily what corresponds with the tenets of cosmopolitanism is a global malaise. Last year, some inspiringly misleading footage of large hearted Germans welcoming Syrian refugees soup and stuffed toys convinced a large part of the outside world (including Syria and Turkey) that Angela Merkel was their saviour. The German Chancellor succumbed to do-gooder pressure to atone for the Third Reich and has allowed nearly a million refugees into Germany. Today, the underlying disquiet that the policy makers and media ignored has triggered a backlash that may unsettle political alignments in Germany.
India witnessed convulsions between 1989 and 1993 that, apart from being a nominal movement for a temple was also an assertion of Hindu concerns over lopsided minorityism. The chattering classes seriously underestimated the significance and reach of this upsurge. They chose to inordinately influenced by a certified body of opinion makers, that included the stalwarts of the same Jawaharlal Nehru University that is at the centre of a controversy today. At the heart of the problem was the temptation to remain confined to the safe zones of discourse. Like in today’s US, they had never really known or understood the people or communities who are the equivalent of today’s Trump supporters that are less inclined to observe niceties.
Trump’s rise is akin to an earthquake that is being measured for its intensity. But while rushing to rubbish this maverick, it is equally important to understand the phenomenon that transformed this an into a political phenomenon. Understanding any country necessitates understanding people that are outside one’s own social and political experiences.
The Telegraph, March 11, 2016