Thursday, March 17, 2016

Mukul Kesavan - Donald Trump and the global equalization of awfulness

One of the consequences of the rise of Donald Trump is the global equalization of awfulness. Time was when desis would lament the loneliness of the long-distance liberal in India and gesture, by way of contrast, at the West where liberal virtues were institutionalized and where political differences were civilly expressed. If this was ever true, it isn't true any more.

I'm thinking about that delicious moment in one of the Republican debates when Marco Rubio suggested that Trump had abnormally small hands. Trump read this as a sexual slur and assured the Republican faithful, on television, that nothing about him was small. Reassured, they voted him to a landslide win in the Florida primary. Who would have thought that a state made up of rich, sun-wrinkled retirees was so invested in virility?

The idea that America is a nation of laws while third-world republics like ours are governed by overmighty States that are whimsical, corrupt and arbitrary, is, like most stereotypes, based on a half-truth. It's true that the US Constitution is a part of America's political culture in a way that the Indian Constitution isn't a part of ours. The First and Second Amendments and the rights they enshrine - the right to free speech and the weird right to own guns, especially semi-automatic assault rifles - are an everyday part of American political discourse. Thanks to novels, films and television, desis who have never been to America know that 'taking the Fifth' means invoking the Fifth Amendment to avoid incriminating yourself.

So when Nivedita Menon, a professor in Jawaharlal Nehru University has police complaints filed against her because of her views on Kashmir and Hinduism, or when Pushp Sharma, a journalist and RTI activist, is picked up and questioned by the Delhi Police for writing a sourced story on systematic sarkari discrimination against Muslims, Indians can be forgiven for looking enviously Westwards at free speech protections more robust than their own.

Then you hear Trump threatening newspapers with consequences should he become president, you see protesters at his rallies being manhandled and thrown out, and you watch his triumphal progress through the Republican primaries despite these assaults on ordinary liberal values and you begin to wonder how much protection constitutionalist safeguards actually afford against popular prejudice.

Donald Trump, like Narendra Modi, is important because his success is a symptom of widespread bigotry. He embarrasses conservative commentators and the Republican establishment because his success makes this darkness visible. Instead of dog-whistling or talking about 'states rights' or the 'southern strategy', euphemisms for the low tactics designed to consolidate the votes of disaffected white voters, Trump has chosen to be openly bigoted and he has been rewarded for it.

Trump's political appeal is based on explicit racism. As Ben Mathis-Lilley writes at Slate, "[as] a matter of accuracy, though, if someone who says Mexican immigrants in America are disproportionately likely to be rapists, argues that Muslims should not be allowed into the United States, and repeats sleazy urban legends about the behaviour of American Muslims and black people is not a racist, then the word has no meaning."

There is a reason why Trump equivocated about rejecting David Duke's endorsement. Duke used to be the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist organization well beyond the pale of political respectability. Trump doesn't think Duke's endorsement is toxic because he recognizes that a substantial part of his support base consists of older white men without a college education who, goaded beyond endurance by Barack Obama's time as president, want a white Restoration. Put plainly, racist whites are crucial to Trump's candidacy and he doesn't want to alienate them by disavowing Duke.

Actually, the truth is that racist working class whites and racist older white people are crucial to the electoral coalition of any viable Republican candidate. And while this is true for the presidency, it is equally true for Congressional elections. Despite a changing population and unfavourable demographics, Republicans have succeeded in winning more states and more legislative contests because they have been ruthless in gerrymandering electoral districts for the sake of creating white majorities or pluralities. The whiteness of the Republican base predates Trump's emergence by decades. It is important to point out that the party's alignment with an angry white rump didn't just happen; it was achieved by design.

Which is why the consternation of conservative commentators at the prospect of a Trump nomination is comical. It's funny because all ambushes are amusing from the point of view of the disinterested spectator. The spectacle of a party establishment and its tame ideologues being upended by a cheerful vulgarian is irresistible. The republican establishment wanted to harness the rage and anxiety of a resentful white rump for its own ends: neo-conservative interventionism abroad, Wall Street welfare and ever lower taxes for the very rich plus huge welfare cuts for the very poor at home, and an immigration policy that would turn immigrants into temporary guest workers for America's employers.

Trump saw that the straight road to the heart of this constituency was to pander to its prejudices explicitly. So he did. Immigrants, he declared, took both your jobs and your women. He saw that working class whites had no interest in a rational immigration policy so he promised them a brutally irrational one: he would deport all 12 million illegal immigrants including their children, he would build a border wall you could see from outer space and he would get the Mexicans to pay for it.

He saw that they liked Medicaid so he broke with conservative orthodoxy about welfare spending on health. He recognized that white evangelicals were white first and evangelical later and guessed, correctly, that his anti-immigrant, anti-free trade rhetoric would win them over. Conservative pundits like George Will, Ross Douthat, Charles Krauthammer and Jennifer Rubin felt robbed of their ideological respectability by Trump's cheerful bigotry. They preferred the deniability of dog-whistling to Trump's more 'direct' methods. Marco Rubio, the darling of this class of 'respectable' Republican thinker, lost his home state, Florida, by a landslide because the white Republican base never forgave his attempt to broker a bi-partisan immigration bill in 2013.

Sections of this Republican pundit class, blind-sided by the Trump phenomenon, are predicting a brokered convention. According to them there will be a political coup where the GOP's elders will name an establishment candidate not called Trump and edge Donald out. This is a case of sore losers whistling in the wind. It is almost certain Trump will win the nomination and when he does, the clients and time-servers who make up the bulk of every political establishment, will, like the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, embrace him. Deep in their hearts they recognize that the party's beating heart has been, for decades, its angry white base.

Seen this way, Trump's ascension represents not a rupture with the past, but the base coming into its own and there will be no shortage of re-purposed intellectuals and born again pundits to explain to everyone who cares to listen the Importance of being Trump. We in India will look on knowingly, having been here before.