By Swapan Dasgupta
Among the biggest pitfalls of political analysis is the belief—sometimes not altogether self-conscious—that what we believe is desirable will translate into reality. All of us have, at some time or another, been guilty of such a misreading of the situation, and not necessarily because of ideological convictions.
Last week, contrary to all the wisdom of punditry, the flamboyant billionaire businessman Donald Trump decimated all his remaining Republican opponents and emerged, for all practical purposes, as the Republican Party’s nominee for the US presidential election in November 2016. When he entered the race many months earlier, the pollsters gave Trump only a two per cent chance of negotiating the primaries successfully. He defied the collective wisdom of the punditry and the organised might of the Republican Establishment to prevail. The next few weeks before the Republican convention may witness another last minute attempt by the grandees to deprive him of the nomination. But with the party faithful rallying behind him, any last minute bid to foist a more ‘respectable’ candidate is doomed to failure. In democracies, manipulative politics is powerless in the face of popular fury.
The Trump nomination has also set in motion a parallel explosion of conventional wisdom: the firm belief that November will witness the easy victory of Hilary Clinton. This confidence stems not so much from a larger international confidence in the wife of the former charismatic US President. The Democratic Party primaries have revealed the extent of Hilary’s vulnerability in the face of a popular onslaught. If a poorly funded, slightly maverick, self-professed socialist such as Senator Bernie Sanders could the well-oiled Clinton many nervous moments, imagine what Trump can do?
Hilary may well end up as the first woman President of the US. But her victory against Trump isn’t by any means assured, as yet.
It is tempting to portray Trump as a loose cannon blessed with a foul tongue and a repertoire of crazy conspiracy theories. The belief that such a man could only go so far and no further has been unendingly disproved over the past few months. Obviously, Trump’s wild politics strikes a chord among many Americans. While debunking those beliefs is easy, it is far more instructive to identify the basis of his undoubted appeal. Just as Indian politics isn’t determined by the Left-Liberal consensus of the newsrooms in Delhi or even the preferences of the insiders in Lutyens’ Delhi, the mood of America isn’t always gleamed from the self-comforting echo chambers of the campuses and financial wheeler-dealers. While their inputs should always be factored, they don’t constitute the whole story.
To my mind, what makes the Trump campaign very potent is the fact that it has been able to tap the vast reservoirs of accumulated anger. When combined with fear, the cocktail is both hateful and explosive.
At the top of the anger-filled agenda is the belief that the US has slipped from its divinely-ordained position as the world’s top dog. The Trump supporters believe that the once-mighty US of A is being kicked around by Islamic terrorists on the one hand, and an unscrupulous China on the other. American workers, they feel, are losing jobs and being reduced to impoverishment because they are hostages to transnational capitalism. Moreover, the demographic shift that has accompanied a permissive immigration policy has resulted in a huge mass of people who are no longer attached to the fundamental Judaeo-Christian underpinnings of the US.
Most of these beliefs aren’t unique. Over the past two decades, the facets of American ‘declinology’ have been articulated by well-heeled think tanks. In the 1990s, Pat Buchanan articulated the resentment against multilateral trading systems and the Harvard academic Samuel Huntington (better known for his Clash of Civilisations) wrote tellingly of immigration destroying the American ethos.
Trump’s achievement has been in tying all these different strands of resentment into a single, angry narrative and a single slogan. For a man whose campaign has so far been largely self-funded and without the benefit of a large army of pollsters, speech writers and researchers, the achievement has been colossal. As a canny businessman Trump instinctively detected political openings and rushed to fill the void. Whereas his Republican opponents in the primaries focussed on their Christian credentials, Trump’s appeal was more wide ranging. Trump appealed to angry New Yorkers as well as those who felt short-changed by the ‘system.’
It is the fierce anti-Establishment thrust of the Trump campaign that should not be underestimated, and more so since Hilary is seen as the personification of everything that is rotten about a cosy consensus. But more than that, Trump scores by not accepting the neo-Conservative beliefs on the economy at face values. Indeed, at times the differences between Trump and Hilary’s Democratic rival Sanders is notional. It is this positioning that provides him the opening to appeal to traditional Democratic voters who are not driven by ethnicity. To put it starkly, against Hilary’s grand alliance of the educated, the Blacks and the Hispanics, Trump offers a grand alliance of angry white America. His only shortcoming is that he alienated women with a few incredibly stupid comments but he still has time to repair that damage.
I believe that unless Trump scores a series of self-goals or unless Hilary somehow reinvents herself after securing the nomination, we are likely to see a riveting election whose outcome is not pre-determined. Decision makers in India should keep an open mind on developments in the US.
Sunday Pioneer, May 8, 2016