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Trumping across the world

Donald Trump is not a uniquely American phenomenon. America is only catching up.

Written by Bhaskar Chakravorti | Published: April 22, 2016 12:29:48 am
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at Stephen Decatur High School, Wednesday, April 20, 2016 in Berlin. (Source: AP) Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. (Source: AP)

Of course, there can be no comparison. One is a teaseller’s son, the other, heir to a multi-million dollar real-estate fortune. One is a career politician, the other, a bull repeatedly charging the political china shop. One who campaigned with different headgear, from Rajasthani turbans to tribal dumluks, impeccably synchronised to appease different target constituencies, the other, favouring the same immovable bird’s nest of hair as the sole ornamentation for his head, regardless of the customer.

With all that being said, America’s unexpected surge in favour of Donald Trump, who has just won the crucial New York primary, reflects a universal yearning: The ordinary man — and woman — wanting to be led by someone extraordinary, by a leader omnipotent and muscular, who does not dither with endless policy deliberation and consensus-building. The Indian voter experienced this yearning leading up to the general election of 2014, handing the reins to an outsider to Delhi: Narendra Modi. It is the same yearning that gave Hungary’s strongman Viktor Orbán a landslide victory, also in 2014. And it is the same yearning that in 2015 brought in the right-wing government in Poland, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, which “dislikes critical media, vegetarians and cyclists” (according to The Economist), among other proxies for liberal democracy. Models of such no-nonsense muscularity are evident around the globe: Turkey (Erdogan), Nigeria (Buhari), Egypt (Sisi), Russia (Putin), China (Xi).

The aftershocks of the 2008 recession, combined with growing geopolitical tension, religious strife, failing institutions and technological change that makes many jobs obsolete, have created an environment of acute volatility and uncertainty. Each part of the world has experienced the symptoms of this uncertainty in different ways. What is common is that the middle and lower middle classes are left with a nagging suspicion that the elites are skimming the cream. In the meantime, the intelligentsia offers complicated explanations of reality today and the establishment politicians have little more than vague promises for tomorrow. This makes the promises of “Achhe din aane waale hain/ Good days are coming” or “Make America great again” part of the same arc, a booster shot of instant optimism and hope of good things around the corner. So, the hoi polloi have assembled a playbook. First, throw the bums out. Next, elect a leader who will cut through the clutter of competing interests, and competing economists’ prescriptions and look beyond the foreign affairs mavens nattering on about soft power. Forget about the neo-Newtonian approach to governance where, for every action, there is an equal and opposite rationale for inaction, cry the masses; elect someone who says, “just do it” and then, just does it.

Needless to say, the intelligentsia is horrified. Haven’t the masses learnt anything from the 20th century? If anything, recent history should have impressed upon all of them about the power of liberal democracy over the all-powerful, illiberal demagogue. Even technological revolutions of the last century — telecommunications, transportation networks, the internet — ought to have nudged societies towards a rejection of centralised power. Have the riffraff not read the MIT-Harvard magnum opus by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail, which had made such a splash along the Charles River by clearly demonstrating that inclusive leadership is the key to success and autocratic and extractive leadership is what causes nations to fail? And yet, here we are in the 21st century bringing the autocrats back to life to run the world.

As I have travelled to Asia, the Middle East and Europe, many among the intelligentsia have confessed to feeling completely mystified with the direction that the United States appears to be taking or signalling with the Trump surge. I have a simple message for my friends and colleagues. Trumpism is not a uniquely American phenomenon; the rest of the world had gone down this path long before; America is simply catching up.

Still confused? It is useful keeping a few rules of thumb in mind about this “new abnormal”.

When the “new normal” isn’t working for you, a new abnormal — no matter how abnormal — can have strong appeal: Recall that the 20th century had closed mostly on a note of many promises. The internet! Emerging markets! Globalisation! End of poverty! The first stretch of this century has revealed that making progress on these promised trajectories is so much more complicated. Much of what seemed like a hockey stick — or even a linear upward trajectory — has taken a U-turn when measured in terms of how life feels closer to the ground. This creates momentum for an insurgency that breaks from the prevailing trends and lurches towards disequilibrium.

Real change can only come from those with few incentives entangled in the status quo: This means that a true outsider is needed. In a digitally enhanced, media-saturated age, it is possible for outsiders with an eye-catching and easy-to-transmit message to gather momentum. Encapsulated in 140 characters, such messages travel faster and go further. Such viral spread of unseemly virility would have been impossible in the old days, where the prevailing establishment could block access to competitive stimuli.

Consensus-building is perceived as a doorway to corruption: Gaining agreement from many stakeholders means making many compromises, aligning with the interests of others, forging coalitions, buying buy-in through offering compensation or incentives. Alternatively, a self-assured, autocratic leader, who is a solo act and projects an oversize personality appears “clean” — and is, in effect, working directly for the people, as opposed to a multitude of special interests. Such clarity makes the insurgent’s message even sharper and helps carry it even further.

Trump, much like all the other self-assured leaders who have preceded him, is a product of the democratic process in action. Democracy gives the electorate the right to elect anyone it chooses, even if it is someone who is anti-democratic. This equality of opportunity is the ultimate — albeit ironic — beauty of the process. Of course, whether Trump can make it to the finish line, as Modi did, is still very much in question. To my mind, the endgame is less relevant than what his seemingly counter-intuitive rise reveals about the American voter. It has shown us that the American voter is closer to the Indian voter or to the Polish or the Nigerian voter, than you would think.

At least not all of the truths of the 20th century have been overturned: Globalisation survives. There is a global yearning to be led, even if it means a descent from the Trump Tower of hope into the abyss that follows.

Chakravorti is senior associate dean of international business & finance at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, and founding executive director of Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context. He is author of ‘The Slow Pace of Fast Change’.

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