You would think it’s impossible for someone to criticise the pope, support Planned Parenthood, denounce the American occupation of Iraq under George W. Bush, proclaim neutrality between Israel and Palestine, praise Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and win the Republican Party’s nomination for president.
That’s precisely where the real estate tycoon from New York, Donald Trump, might be headed. Notwithstanding his abrasive personal style, Trump has won 10 out of 15 Republican primaries so far. After making light of his initial victories, the so-called Republican establishment is now desperate to stop Trump. But no one is betting on its success. The idea of “President Trump” has moved from “unimaginable” to “laughable” to “dangerous”.
Those of us outside America must ignore the elite condescension towards Trump and appreciate that his advance reflects an unprecedented churn in American politics. The significance of the 2016 elections becomes clearer when you see Trump in conjunction with Hillary Clinton’s march towards the Democratic nomination.
Whoever wins the election, it would mark an inflection point. America surprised the world in 2008 by electing the first black president with the middle name “Hussein”. It’s likely to surprise us again by electing the first woman to the White House or a crass businessman beyond the political pale.
Before she moves back to the White House on her own steam, Hillary Clinton will make history by becoming the first woman to be nominated for president by either of America’s two leading parties. One strong glass ceiling against political women in America will come crashing down.
Trump has already shaken up the Republican Party by defying many of its ideological red lines and has the potential to reshape America’s domestic politics and international orientation. It was widely assumed his call for a temporary ban on Muslim visitors, the promise to build a wall along the border with Mexico, and his refusal to dissociate from white racist supporters would fatally damage his candidacy. Yet, the Trump candidacy has grown from strength to strength. He has flummoxed Washington’s punditocracy by expanding his political appeal and cutting across traditional social and political divides.
For many in America, used to carefully synthesised messages from politicians navigating between donors, special interest groups and the electorate, Trump appears to have the guts his rivals lack — to say what they want to hear. As he tears through the Republicans’ traditional opposition to abortion and government-supported healthcare and ideological commitment to free trade and immigration, Trump has drawn a visceral reaction from Republican experts on national security and foreign policy.
In an open letter issued Wednesday night, a group of 50 savants, including former US ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, and former World Bank president Robert Zoellick, has put across a stinging rebuke against Trump’s policies. Trump’s view of “American influence and power in the world,” the letter said, “is wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle” and “swings from isolationism to military adventurism within the space of one sentence”. The group slammed Trump’s call for “trade wars” as “a recipe for economic disaster in a globally connected world”. Trump’s “hateful anti-Muslim rhetoric,” they said, undermines the effort to combat Islamic radicalism, alienates US partners in the Muslim world, and endangers the constitutional freedoms of American Muslims. The experts declared that Trump’s “insistence that close allies such as Japan must pay vast sums for protection is the sentiment of a racketeer, not the leader of the alliances that have served us so well since World War II.”
The letter declared that Trump’s “admiration for foreign dictators such as Vladimir Putin is unacceptable for the leader of the world’s greatest democracy”. Worse still, they accuse Trump of authoritarianism
by arguing his “expansive view of how presidential power should be wielded against his detractors poses a distinct threat to civil liberty”. As “committed and loyal Republicans,” the experts said, “we are unable to support a party ticket with Trump at its head. We commit ourselves to working energetically to prevent the election of someone so utterly unfitted to the office.”
The letter neatly sums up the elite American critique of Trump. But it may not necessarily be in sync with America’s changing reality. If Trump is channelling primordial fears of many Americans, Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s rival for the Democratic nomination, is doing much the same on the left. Both have been successful in mobilising those losing from economic globalisation and angry at growing inequality. They are tapping into popular resentment against costly foreign adventures in the name of US leadership.
It’s not just the “Republicans for Clinton”, but most of America’s interlocutors, including India, will be eager to see Hillary win the election. But given the current turmoil, there’s no betting Clinton might walk effortlessly to the White House. Beating Trump will not be easy; and Sanders might come to the Democratic Convention strong enough to influence the party’s electoral platform. Flexible and canny politician that she is, Hillary is likely to adapt to America’s angry mood.
If America is changing at home, its foreign policy can’t remain the same. The 2016 election is bound to push America towards some foreign policy choices considered, until now, out of bounds. The world can no longer take America for granted amid declining domestic support for free trade, immigration, alliance commitments and
military interventions. This would necessarily mean emerging powers like India must prepare for larger regional and international responsibilities in the economic and security domains.