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Sleepless in Seattle… and Saharanpur

As the prospect of a Trump presidency looms large than ever, we have to ask what got us here

Binay Kumar
Publish Date: Jul 4 2016 5:12PM | Updated Date: Jul 4 2016 5:12PM

Sleepless in Seattle… and Saharanpur

Why a Trump defeat, even if it happens, will not douse the far-right extremism brewing in democracies across the world.


The presumptive Republican nominee for the November Presidential elections, Donald Trump, has caused widespread discomfort, not in the United States alone. As the prospect of a Trump presidency looms large and looks more real than ever, we have to ask what got us here. 


When Donald Trump entered the race, he was commonly jeered at as a joke, as no more than a passing phenomenon, a side show to the dance of electoral democracy in its best know abode. As the months passed, the bluster and buffoonery of Trump’s shrill rhetoric reached feverish pitch and it demolished a bunch of 17 rivals, all of them mainstream politicians of many years’ standing, to land an astonishing victory. All of us, including the republicans, looked askance and had no real answer to a fait accompli that couldn’t be wished away any longer. 


We cannot upend the electorate’s choice and, for that reason, we cannot decide here whether Trump is a bonafide fascist, or just a racist, extreme nationalist bully. If you believe in democracy, however, I can safely argue that any political group seeking the exclusion of peoples based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, colour, caste or creed deserves to be excluded from the polity. Therefore, Trump poses to us a much more serious and a larger question: is he alone in this? Can we single him out?


I believe we cannot. In his most dangerous nationalist invocations, Trump is in the company of Hungary’s xenophobia-spewing prime minister, Viktor Orbán, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, President Rodrigo Duterte of Philippines, Marine Le Pen of France’s far-right National Front (NF), Italy’s anti-immigrant Northern League, Finland’s Finn Party, Austria’s Freedom Party, Greece’s Golden Dawn, the Danish People’s Party, the Sweden Democrats, the U.K. Independence Party, the Swiss People’s Party and, of course, India’s RSS and its hydra-headed fronts whose venom is spread in the name of an exclusivist Hindutva ideology and so on and so forth. 


No matter how much you make him out to be an American phenomenon, the reality is that in Europe, Russia, Philippines or India Trump would fit right in. (Appalling though it may sound, Trump’s birthday celebrations were hosted recently in the heart of India’s capital, Delhi -- and not too far from the seat of the Central Government -- by an extreme right formation wearing religion on its sleeve and calling itself not surprisingly The Hindu Sena.) The truth is that Trump’s hymns of nationalistic nativism has created resonance for far-right parties across the globe.


What’s happening here? What’s common between Trump and the phenomena that he symbolises in places as afar as Boston and Bareilly, Minneapolis and Muzaffarnagar?  


Not long ago, the onward march of democracy in the wake of decolonisation was almost taken for granted. Even the most extreme single-party governments, in China, Russia, North Korea, chose to prefix their names with democracy as if such a label would banish the stench of demagoguery they spewed everyday. The changeover to a market-led democratisation was an easy step to take. And, the United Sates was its foremost example, like a beacon on the hill, to follow. Globalisation was the new battle cry giving hopes of lifting millions out of poverty in a short, swift move. The cold war was soon declared dead and non-alignment as a foreign policy tool became as feckless as the Indian bureaucracy. 


The nineties brought a new hope on the horizon. For once in the history of humanity, globalisation appeared to be the panacea for all the ills of an imperialist past - poverty, disease and hunger. 


Fast-forward thirty years and that hope has been smashed to the ground. From the rust belt in the United States to the parched fields of Marathwada, globalisation has brought miseries for the middle classes. And that path of destruction travels through great swathes of Europe, South America and South and South-East Asia. The financial meltdown of 2008 only helped accelerate the growing feeling that democracy had failed to live up to its promises. To conflate democracy with globalisation is as erroneously seductive as to hoist nationalism in place of patriotism.


For a while the pundits failed to anticipate the interplay of politics and economics in a heady mix of populism. It is now pushing for a shift in the balance of power from the new elites of crony capitalism to the freshly minted new oligarchs of nativist chauvinism.  Their fear mongering of ‘the others’ as scapegoats for mass miseries, cast as they are in shades of religion, colour or such dissimilarities, feeds on and fans the disaffection. Whether you like it or not, the global economy has already been integrated and no matter where you live issues far beyond our borders affect our attitudes in dealing with local issues. Put it another way – local issues are bound to get affected by global winds.


The pushback from the establishment, from those who have benefited through globalisation, is a real possibility. We can see the Establishment Republicans still dithering to support Trump and they continue to threaten a brokered convention. For all we know that might still be the case. 


However, it would be foolhardy to ignore the voices of populism. We can do so only at our own peril. The broad daylight murder of a Westminster MP, Jo Cox, in England last week because she championed the cause of Syrian refugees and favoured staying in the EU is a poignant tale of real life travails of the middle classes trumping hope in democratic institutions. It turns out that the killer of Cox was a known Nazi sympathiser for years. 

Globalisation’s singular achievement was to dissolve ‘national boundaries’ as economic fate of billions got intertwined. If the hopes of prosperity and better life were a shared ideal so are the miseries today creating a fertile ground for nationalism of the most extreme variety to take roots. 


The spread of the Internet has only given populism a leg up. Not only is it easier to organise disaffected people who feel left behind, susceptible minds fall prey to populist arguments that they might not hear in their midst but tune into ‘sympathies’ comes from afar. And, it cuts both ways.


The Hindu-nationalist BJP is happy to give a large part of the credit for its astounding victory in the last elections to the social media. (It’s chief protagonist who led the party’s triumphant march into power is an Internet rage in India, often compared with Obama. Unfortunately, the similarities end right there!) 


You cannot blame a twenty-something brought up in Patna, watching soap operas on TV everyday that flaunt a bohemian lifestyle, for thinking that it was all within his easy grasp because the populist rhetoric (for example, fifteen lakh rupees in each pocket because the Hindu nationalists were going to bring all the black money stashed away in foreign banks) sold him that idea and the utopia was too alluring to resist. And, when it doesn’t materialise, the ‘other’ who looks different or speaks a different tongue or worships differently is an easy target to vent his anger and frustration on.


Assuming – or hoping - that Trump is indeed defeated in the elections in November will not do away with the monster of a political ideology that he stands for and has successfully trumpeted. Even if he loses, these forces of extreme nationalism will not go away easily. The constituency he’s building is likely to stick around in many countries including India for long. And that should give us all, who have spent our lives looking up to liberal democratic ideals, sleepless nights, not only in Seattle but Saharanpur too. 


(Binay Kumar is based out of New York. Views expressed here are his personal)