United States of discontent

Trump’s victory underlines a sense of dread, of what lies in the dark spaces.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Published:November 10, 2016 12:06 am
donald trump, hillary clinton, us elections, president donald trump, donald trump president, new us president, donald trump new president, us elections, us presidential elections, us polls Donald Trump. (AP Photo)

The world is in revolt. We do not have a clue about the depth of distemper that has occasioned this revolt. Nor can we fully comprehend its likely consequences. The honest truth is that almost all the basic assumptions that were brought to bear on understanding American, and perhaps global politics, are being shattered. We pretended that our techniques of analysis captured deep undercurrents. Donald Trump has revealed a form of politics we had not seen and an America we had not understood. He has charted a new chapter in history. It is hard to deny him that.

We can now claim to retrospectively understand the causes of this extraordinary victory. They were hidden in plain sight. What prevented us from seeing them were our pre-judgments. Or perhaps, as Trump would diagnose, the bias of the supposed liberal establishment is now so deep that it has warped its cognitive ability to understand the world. But the broad narrative was always clear. The revolt against globalisation was deep and pervasive. The fantasy of a post-racial politics, of a politics not premised on ethnicity, was just that: A fantasy. The demographic fantasy of a “coloured” coalition standing alongside gender solidarity underestimated the counter resistance the very idea would generate: It unleashed a significant white counter mobilisation. Anti-globalisation and racial nativism powered each other; the former gave the latter a respectable intellectual basis while nativism gave globalisation its emotional edge. We can dwell on Hillary Clinton’s vulnerabilities as a candidate, her identification with a tired and corrupt establishment, a charge levelled against her by both Left and Right. We can now speculate that our reading of American history always mistook a small episode in its identity for the whole: The America of Warren Court liberalism and the Cold War sense of global purpose was an aberration in American history.

On the economic front, we can now argue that it was going to be always hard for a centrist liberal, tagged with the brush of elitism, to combat three economic discontents simultaneously: Inequality, plutocracy, and anti-trade. In past elections, these have appeared individually, not together in a cocktail, as Bernie Sanders had suggested. The perception of these three ills overwhelmed any small consolation that the American economy was not that bad; with a modest recovery under difficult circumstances. But the Left had, in some senses, already damaged the candidate on the credibility of the economy.

We can spin all these narratives. But truth be told, they will appear more of a retrospective gloss on the single most improbable electoral achievement in human history. There is still something unfathomable about this victory. Trump is now being described as an agent of enfranchising the disenfranchised. Electorally, it is hard to argue with this assessment. But it is the peculiar alchemy of this election — and perhaps a testament to the widespread support Trump has garnered — that the term “disenfranchised” is more complicated that it looks. It includes sections of the working class. But it also includes college graduates, worried less about class marginalisation, than some anger about America’s direction and its place in the world. The election was a post-modern election in this sense. Some sense of disenfranchisement is structurally clear. This may be true of sections of the working class. But a sense of disenfranchisement can also be created: By conjuring visions of a world overrun by people who are different, by the fear of immigrants and women wielding power. Do people outside the big cities resent the structural privileges of big cities, as seems to be happening, where cities are markers of power. Or do they feel disenfranchised because of the culture and lifestyles those cities represent? Is it the dispossessed sacking Rome because Rome is oppressive? Or are they sacking Rome because Rome seems a symbol of licentious freedom? The answer is not either/or. But it was Trump’s alchemy to fuse both senses of disenfranchisement into an electoral coalition. We thought Trump was vulnerable because he had annoyed so many different racial groups. It turned out that he could, instead, mobilise several different resentments.

Donald Trump has shifted the tectonic plates of politics in a way unprecedented in the annals of electoral history. He was an outsider to politics. His party, while never in open revolt, did not quite know what to do with him. His personal record would, in any other world, create a mountain of electoral vulnerabilities. His charisma, if we can retrospectively call it that, is certainly of an unorthodox kind. He did not have any conventional ideological pedigree. He did not have a long run movement or organisation. He has no experience of any public office. He had all of one newspaper endorsement. But he seems to have intuitively tapped into the mood of the moment. For Americans who were feeling inhibited, all that seemed to matter was his utter lack of inhibition. The very thing that should have been his vulnerability: His lack of decorum, his racial and gendered offensiveness, his lack of consistency, his disregard for facts, became his strength. It is hard to guess how much American voters subscribed to these tenets. But the persona seems to have convinced them that he could, to borrow the line from Star Trek, go where no man had gone before. Americans were willing to go to uncharted territory. He had the audacity to promise to take them there.

This election will test American institutions like no other. Will the messy and sometimes infuriating system of checks and balances that has been the bulwark of American liberty, survive this impatience with the messiness of politics? Trump described those institutions as rigged. He ran against them. What shape will they now take under a new dispensation? He promised to rewrite the founding ideology of America as a nation of immigrants. What would America without that founding commitment look like? The consensus on global economics — a gradual movement towards freer trade, more global integration — has now been blown to smithereens. What will replace it? The election was nasty and divisive. Even if Trump is enfranchising some of the marginalised, he threatened to disenfranchise others. Will he be able to get rid of the poison his campaign has generated in public discourse, even as he promises new greatness? It is his peculiar achievement that we are now asking all the foundational questions. But there is also a sense of dread, of what lies in the dark spaces, where no man has dared to go before. With Trump, one thing is certain. Never a dull moment. Perhaps that is all that politics was yearning for.

The writer is president CPR, Delhi and contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express’