This week saw some remarkable political manoeuvring from US President Donald Trump. The question is, what do we make of his “go back” tweets on the four Congresswomen – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar? Is it the new normal in US politics, where accusations of racism fly thick and fast and where not-so-racist House Speaker Nancy Pelosi prefers aligning with the extreme-Left against a more-racist Trump?
When Nancy Pelosi herself was called out for racism a few days back by the “squad” – the four progressive Congresswomen as they are known popularly – Trump swung to Pelosi’s defence insisting she wasn’t racist. This was followed up in rapid succession by a series of tweets attacking the squad, asking them to go back to where they came from.
Predictably, Nancy Pelosi, who had been at the receiving end of the squad only a few days prior, was forced to swing to the squad’s defence. While Trump is difficult to predict, being the political animal he is, it’s hard to believe that his defence of Pelosi came from the goodness of his heart. Rather he was probably using his most accomplished weapon, the Twitter dog whistle, to thin the Democrats even further. In this, he seems to be mirroring a strategy that Narendra Modi used to great effect in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The Right strategy
The basic assumption of this strategy is you get people with limited mass appeal, then the media amplifies it into a concocted national appeal, and then, these niche celebrities end up costing the Left heavily in elections with the cons outweighing the pros.
How does this play out in real life? Remember Kanhaiya Kumar, Shehla Rashid, Umar Khalid, Gurmehar Kaur, et al? All of them were unheard of – nobodies. Yet, arrests and Twitter troll attacks ensured that their popularity skyrocketed in a short span of time. Soon, they had Twitter blue ticks as well and their follower count saw a sharp rise.
The Indian media, forever seeking a new leader to rally around, given Rahul Gandhi’s abysmal failure in the 2014 elections, posited these youngsters as the icons of a new India –an India that was talking Western, post-nation state political paradigms. This may have resonated with a certain minuscule NDTV-watching, Indian Express-reading, English-speaking elite who identify with a post-Westphalian model and see more in common with Munich than Muzaffarpur.
However, the vast majority of Indians probably identify better with Muzaffarpur or similar towns. They, like middle classes anywhere, are economically ascendant, aspirational, mostly traditional for whom the ‘imagined identity’ that is India, is territorial, deeply nationalistic and sacred (Bharat Mata).
With them, slogans like “Azadi” and “War, not Pakistan, killed my dad” simply aren’t going to fly. So, while many of them would normally vote for the old Congress, and it’s nationalist shibboleths, these slogans are a bridge too far, leading to a rejection of the Kanhaiya Kumar types.
The wrong Left turn
Rahul Gandhi himself, exhibiting every intellectual stereotype of being a one-man European NGO, forgot that the Congress’ legitimacy itself was based on a nationalistic struggle for Independence that had made Gandhi’s contemporaries like Rabindranath Tagore deeply uncomfortable.
Egged on by vacuous op-eds urging a further Leftward shift, whatever little electability the Congress had evaporated when Rahul Gandhi and his minions decided to identify with these 21st-century European norms and their Gonfaloniere in India.
To note, none of the Congress old (or indeed middle) guard went consorting with the Shehlas and the Gurmehars of the world. In the end, for the electorate, the Congress’ Left turn and identification with un-electables was more fatal than Modi’s lacklustre economy.
The data test
The US case is slightly different. Unlike India, The US is heavily industrialised. Also unlike India where opinion polls have high error probability and decisions are seldom data driven, the US is all data.
The industrialised ‘rust belt’, where Trump’s appeal was strongest, along with the south tend to be deeply nationalistic. Nationalism in the US has never been delegitimised as it had been in post-Second World War Europe.
While it is safe to say that large parts of the East and West Coast do see themselves as more European, what they don’t seem to understand is that even in the two geographical extremities, precisely because nationalism was never delegitimised, the idea of America’s powerful destiny and uniqueness remain strong.
This divide between the liberal nationalists and the Euro-style ultra-liberal socialists in the East and West Coast, is the root of the difference between the new age “squad”, whose popularity is niche, and the older Pelosi generation, who have a broader pan-national vision and acceptability.
For example, a recent leaked internal poll of the Democratic party swing voters showed that Ilhan Omar and Ocasio-Cortez had a mere 9 per cent and 22 per cent approval rating. Socialism was viewed favourably by 18 per cent respondents, and unfavourably by 69 per cent.
The negative responses to two of the most prominent members of the squad are no better nationally. Omar and Cortez’s approval ratings were at 25 per cent and 33 per cent, and negatives significantly greater at 34 per cent and 41 per cent respectively (the much-dreaded immigration and customs enforcement – ICE— had a higher approval rating). In short, the national negative rating for the squad is significant.
What Trump seems to be doing is galvanising the radical Left around the unelectable squad, cannibalising support from the more electable, centre-Left older Democrats. In doing so, he is making the Democrats alienate their swing voters.
Democrats are alarmed, but given what Trump pulled off this week, are reluctant to undermine the party. If this hypothesis is correct, then it would seem Trump and Modi have the same playbook: taint the electable opposition by trapping them into playing second fiddle to the un-electables. If that is the case, then like Modi, Trump is headed to a victory with a bigger margin and the Democrats are waltzing into a trap, eyes wide open, but completely helpless.
The author is a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets @iyervval. Views are personal.