Sunday, October 16, 2016

Implications of an imploding Trump campaign

By Swapan Dasgupta

Not unexpectedly, the world shares an obsessive preoccupation with the US presidential election. Many people, particularly those who have internalised the American way of life as their own, take sides and often seem far more engaged than those who will actually vote to select the new occupant of the White House. 

It has been no different this year, but with one difference: the outcome of the election seems a bit too predictable. Barring an absolute political miracle that will put pollsters permanently out of business and transform Facebook into a wailing wall, it seems certain that Hilary Clinton is heading for a resounding win. Some say that it could be a win that, in terms of electoral votes, could equal President Richard Nixon’s victory over George McGovern in 1972. But just as Senator McGovern commanded a significant measure of support from the uber liberal community across the world, Donald Trump also has his vocal support base. 

However, while there is something historic in the fact that Hilary Clinton will be the first woman president of the US, her likely win will be less her personal triumph. It is generally agreed, even by those who will make the effort to actually vote, that the Democratic nominee is not inspirational (unlike President Obama or even Bill Clinton) but quite wooden. In addition, there is much in her past record to suggest that she is often unable to make a distinction between personal interests and public office. A different Republican nominee would have ensured that her victory in November was by no means assured. 

However, much more than the shortcomings of Trump, the transformation of the race in the final month of the campaign into a one-horse contest owes almost entirely to the media. When Hilary is sworn-in on a wintry January morning next year, she must ensure that there is a special enclosure for the media that ensured the transformation of Trump from an angry rebel to a crude misogynist. The relentless enthusiasm with which it broadcast Trump’s ‘locker room’ profanities and subsequently embroidered those with even more ‘grope’ tales ensured that the Republican campaign imploded. It was theoretically possible to create a moral equivalence centred on the misdemeanours of both candidates. Trump has a sordid record as a private citizen and Hilary’s record in public office does not bear exacting scrutiny. However, by literally thrusting the wooden stake into Trump’s nether region, while underplaying Hilary’s dodgy record, the mainstream media tilted the balance quite decisively against the Republicans. In particular, the press and TV channels ensured that Trump approached the election having incurred the displeasure of all women—of all colour and all political persuasion. It was theoretically possible for Trump to win on the strength of the White vote alone, but not with White women also deserting him. And that late swing was entirely a media creation. 

There are serious implications of a Trump defeat. Trump was probably the first example of a non-politician, with robust views but no clear political identification, actually prevailing over the Republican establishment. This has not happened before and nor do I suspect will it happen in the foreseeable future if the Trump campaign implodes. At the same time, the likelihood of established political leaders who have cut their teeth in conventional politics actually internalising populist disruption, shouldn’t be discounted. In France, to take a Western example, the unlikely possibility of National Front leader Marine Le Pen actually ever winning a presidential election has prompted former President Nicolas Sarkozy to appropriate the populist plank and blend it with a more conventional personality. In Hungary, the resounding anti-immigration verdict of the recent referendum points to the Establishment itself embracing populism.

In hindsight, what was wrong with Trump was not what he was advocating. Controlling immigration, reviewing multilateral trade pacts and stepping away from America’s role as the global policeman are themes that resonate throughout the US and constitutes a legitimate anti-Establishment plank. However, the chances of disruptive politics actually succeeding is diminished if it is apparent—as it was in the case of Trump—that the person championing it is not emotionally all there. 

I don’t believe that Trump’s defeat will signal the end of a viable anti-Establishment populism. All over Europe populism is growing as a response to an uncaring cosmopolitan elite that seems to disregard those frightened or left behind by economic or demographic changes. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Theresa May is building a new conservatism that leans more on the nationalism of the far-Right and the class resentment of the Left. I don’t believe that May necessarily believes in what she has said is her policy thrust. She is merely responding to what she sees are political opportunities. 

It is more than likely that Hilary Clinton will either try and forge a rainbow coalition based on identity politics or, if she is clever, try and incorporate elements of Trumpism into her presidency. Either way her ride will be choppy. And that is because Trump has demonstrated that the bipartisan Coca Cola-Pepsi Cola consensus that defined US politics for long is now breaking down—irretrievably. It took a maverick such as Trump to lay bare the new faultlines. Alas, he didn’t have the polish and communication skills of Ronald Reagan to convert it into a winning platform. Trump is over but the themes of his campaign will haunt the US for much longer. 
Sunday Pioneed, November 16, 2016

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