The fond hopes of a Joe Biden presidency restoring “normal” politics at home and the world are misleading. Unless one looks at the small print, Trump’s legacy and the main outcome of the US presidential elections are easy to miss. The presidential election that pitched thuggish, demagogic nationalism against amorphous, sentimental liberalism, ended not in a knockout blow, but a technical win, on points. Taking all the results — elections to gubernatorial positions, and seats in the Senate and House of Representatives and the support for Trump which exceeded all forecasts — one can see why President-elect Biden has emerged hamstrung from the contest, with a Senate majority and a conservative Supreme Court stacked against any major undoing legislative initiative to herald his new era. But even more dangerous than a Biden presidency that might not be able to deliver on its promise is the fact that the Biden victory masks deeper cracks in the political community that Trump, in his haphazard ways, showcased.
The idea that putting a good man in the White House can resurrect the golden era of liberal internationalism is a serious illusion. The Democratic coalition of liberal media, high-tech entrepreneurs, the denizens of leafy suburbs offended by Trump’s antics, inner-city Blacks and civil society activists who voted Biden in was held together by Trump in office. Without this common nemesis, this disparate coalition, with very different agendas, is unlikely to hold together. On the other hand, white blue-collar workers, who have lost out from the flight of manufacturing overseas, and a section of evangelical Christians who feel menaced by radical ideas such as gay marriages and LGBT rights, form an enduring constituency that has felt left out by the liberal establishment. It remained receptive and loyal and is unlikely to fade away.
Trump’s legacy is complex. The most important of these is that “Trumpism” — the movement consisting of ideas, people and rage that Donald Trump incarnated — will outlive the Trump presidency. Trumpism is more an attitude than a coherent philosophy. Unlike Reagan or Thatcher whose isms contained a core of monetarist policies and a worldview based on the Cold War, Trump’s connect is with people who had become invisible to the political establishment. His powerful appeal to these Americans who feel forgotten and dispossessed will continue to be part of the political furniture. These are the ones for whom his transgressions were not an issue, who took him “seriously and not literally” unlike the establishment, which took his clowning literally and did not see the seriousness that underpinned them.
Seen from this angle, the assumption that the four topsy-turvy years of Trump were an aberration — “a surreal interlude” — and that politics will seamlessly get back to its normal shape of two-party competition on predictable lines, is a chimera. The angry nativist conservative populism that Trumpism champions — one sees echoes of this trend among England’s Brexiteers, and supporters of Le Pen in France — will continue to be a potent force from the radical right. The volatile residue of the Black Lives Matter movement is unlikely to fade away either, and will continue to invade the somnolent middle which has sustained the bipartisan consensus of American politics.
Trump’s America, while undermining the Western alliance and asking West European states to take responsibility for their own security, had nevertheless brought its full force to bear against the aggrandisement of China. A Biden presidency, preoccupied domestically, seeking to restore the Western alliance, might seek an accommodation with Chinese ambitions. Biden’s “willing to strike, but afraid to wound” policy might let international rogue states have their way. Pakistan and Turkey will have it good. The Chinese will possibly have the last laugh.
What, then, are the implications of the Biden presidency for India? The left wing of the Democrats are likely to raise issues with some of the core policies of the Modi government with regard to Kashmir, Indian Muslims and CAA. The China-Pakistan axis might be emboldened through the diversion of American interest away from South Asia. Under these circumstances, the premise that “US-India ties stand on a mutually beneficial bipartisan and strong footing” can be misleading. The Quad and Malabar war games — fine as strategic symbols of cooperation with like-minded democracies — will probably continue. However, the hope of securing India’s national interests by riding on the coat-tails of an assertive United States is a dangerous illusion.
The best way forward is to retain strategic autonomy through the Nehruvian concept of non-alignment, adroitly refurbished as the Modi doctrine — “Friendship with all, alliance with none”. India need look no further than the motto of Rajputana Rifles, “Veer bhogya vasundhara (The brave shall inherit the earth)”, as the basis of its security. The Indian state simply has to prepare its people to stay focused on taking responsibility for its own security, getting manufacture up to scratch and look beyond partisan quibbles about farm policy for short-term electoral advantage. With regard to the states of South Asia, India will need to take on board two-timing neighbours, and in domestic politics, the Union government will need to make common cause with Opposition parties in states where they are in power, ideological differences notwithstanding.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 11, 2020 under the title ‘Trump lost, maybe not Trumpism’. The writer is an emeritus professor of political science, Heidelberg University, Germany. His new book, Governance by stealth: The Ministry of Home Affairs and Making of the Indian State will be published by Oxford University Press
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