The big political takeaway from the US presidential election is not who won it. That the deserving candidate is well on his way to winning is a fact. But, going ahead, what matters in terms of the impact on the future politics of America and other democracies around the world, including India, is that Donald Trump received almost half of all popular votes. Now, how the hell could that happen?
More questions follow. Why have nearly 70 million (seven crore) Americans voted for a man seen as a buffoon; a manic, greedy, power-hungry, corrupt tax-dodger and serial sexual predator; and somebody who arguably weakened the country globally and nearly ceded its pre-eminence as the global superpower in a unipolar world to China?
This is also what almost every think-tank worth its logo told us for years. Every pollster, psephologist, chastened by having been shown up by Trump in 2016, pre-scripted an easy win for Joe Biden. They also promised us a blue wave sweeping Trump and the detritus of his “reprehensible” politics away into the gutter of American political history.
Did anybody imagine he would make the race this tight, that so many voters would come out on his call in spite of the pandemic, that he will still wrest Florida, North Carolina and take Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Nevada to the wire? Donald Trump? The proven lunatic?
Just what’s wrong with Americans? That’s a question we would hear often. It is also a political point that will endure even more than this result. Imagine this result as if the coronavirus pandemic had not hit the world and been handled so badly by Trump in America. Wouldn’t he then have swept this election in a giant red wave that would redefine not just America’s but the world’s politics?
That is the scenario Narendra Modi and his counsels had conjured up when he walked around holding Trump’s hand at ‘Howdy, Modi!’ in Texas. Nobody then knew there was the virus in the works in Wuhan. Except, on the outside of the realm of possibility, Xi Jinping.
America’s handling of the pandemic has been the worst in the world. Trump’s America ‘wins’ on sheer data. Never mind that his country has the most extensive and modern health infrastructure in the free world. He trivialised the challenge, plugged unproven prescription drugs at his press conferences, politicised the mask, and was caught by the virus. There will be only one description for his performance: Shambolic. It deserves to be put in all capital letters, but the reason we are shy of doing that is we do not want anything in ‘National Interest’ looking like a Trump tweet.
And yet, in town after town away from the metros, in village after village, especially in ‘red’ heartland America, very comparable in its policy affiliations to India’s Hindi heartland, people in the worst-affected places, states and counties have come out in greater numbers than ever before, and voted for Trump, their confirmed tormentor.
The reason we call this the most important takeaway from this election is that it underlines a growing, and whether we like it or not, maturing phenomenon in democracies.
That is, if a demagogue has the skill and the cheek to build a dominant majority’s latent insecurities into a victim complex, he can build an impregnable base. See, for example, the incurable minority complex of Hindus in India. Especially in the Hindi region and two key states of the western region, Gujarat and Maharashtra.
Trump, like Narendra Modi in India, waded in to take over a conservative party of the Right and completely rewrote its philosophy, ideology and agenda around the most marketable aspects of his own personality.
Both have challenged — and mocked — political correctness and elitism, though in their own different ways. Both have succeeded in prising the working classes, even the so-called underclass, away from their ossified, old Left-Socialist fortresses.
The standout Trump statement in one of his many angry statements in the counting days was his call to the working classes of America. Very similar is that to the new politics Modi has built at least for the past 6 years, always seeming to be doing something for the poor, delivering it efficiently, and vacuum-cleaning the upper crust with ever higher taxes.
Trump has taken the Republican Party by the neck and dumped everything it stood for: Free trade, liberal immigration, globalisation, low tariffs, worldwide power projection and policing — everything except low taxes. Modi is course-correcting now, woken up by an economy in free fall, but his first six years weren’t any different. The BJP used to be a party, we thought, of free enterprise, privatisation, low taxes, wealth creation and so on. All that was put in the freeze, until now.
We talk about Modi and his politics often enough. So, let’s keep the focus on Trump and what his political success teaches. America has now seen the rise of a new ideology: Trumpism. Given the way he is, even if defeated, he won’t fade away like America’s traditional former presidents. Because nothing about him is traditional. As a political phenomenon, he is sui generis. You’ve got to live with his legacy. And not just in America. Because politicians across the democratic world will learn from him. His shadow will not easily leave the Republicans. Nor would his family.
The finest minds in the American and Western media, with all their political experience and scholarship, failed to adequately appreciate Trumpism’s impact, just as so many of us in India can’t fathom, or accept, Moditva’s.
Could that be because we still carry an overload of the notion that the only way to keep winning is to make people better off? Didn’t Bill Clinton tell us, “It’s the economy, stupid”? If so, how could Modi get an even bigger majority in 2019 in an already struggling economy, or Trump so many votes exactly on the day his country was counting its second-highest number of coronavirus cases?
Let’s flip that question. Alright, you can’t make your people better off. But can you make them feel better? That is where the more touchy-feely, emotional aspect of culture, religion and identity comes in. At this point in democratic politics across borders, that is winning. That is why even a Centrist like Emmanuel Macron is talking the way he is. Rising wokeness is the fuel driving this populist demagogy.
Mark the words the famous CNN anchor Anderson Cooper used for Trump: “We see him like an obese turtle on his back flailing in the hot sun, realising his time is over.” How do you think Trump’s base sees it? Of course, as evidence that all Trump says about elitism is right. It is the same when English-speakers here laugh at Modi for not being able to spell ‘STRENGTH’ correctly. It makes his base, built on cultural identity and abhorrence of elitism, even more loyal. Trump, if anything, has been made fun of a million times more than Modi. And in public, not whispers. Now you know why nearly half of America, a lot of it working class, still turns up to vote for him.