Donald Trump’s electoral victory on Wednesday, making him the 45th President of the United States, has many implications. But the one implication that should be noted in particular is the lesson that it provides to journalists or the media as a whole. This lesson is significant to Indian journalists as well, particularly the political pundits, now that they will be covering the upcoming Assembly elections in important states like Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.
This lesson, however, is not exactly new. It was the takeaway from our last General elections in 2014, that resulted in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's unprecedented victory. This lesson has now been re-validated by Trump’s 'against all odds' victory. In fact, there are many commonalities between Modi’s 2014 victory and Trump’s recent triumph.
The lesson is that the media should observe, report and analyse the polls as dispassionately as possible, and not become an active player in the polls by furthering the causes of a particular candidate (or party) – by demonising his or her rival.
This lesson is vitally important for the credibility of the media itself, because the candidate it demonises eventually succeeds, as was the case with Trump. But this lesson also has a corollary; the standard tools used by most journalists (and academicians) in explaining such elections need a fine-tuning.
Almost all the major media houses in the United States (including the British magazine the Economist, that sells the most in America) had formally “endorsed” Hillary Clinton through their respective editorial boards. And their reporters had gone to every possible length to demonise Trump.
It has now come to light that a senior CNN analyst had leaked the questions of the Presidential debate to Hillary wee in advance. In fact, another analyst of the same channel cried live on television when Trump overtook Hillary during the vote count.
It is also noteworthy in this context how a well known Indian TV anchor, who was covering the US elections for her channel, had tweeted how “thrilled” she was about Hillary's impending victory and how she was eager to hear her “D-Day” speech!
Invariably, the mainstream US media highlighted how Hillary had a distinguished service to the country as first lady, as a senator from New York, and as Secretary of State; thereby enforcing that she had “every right to be taken seriously as a White House contender.”
In contrast, the media lambasted Trump, saying that he was not a man of ideas and had no record in public service and no qualifications for the job. In an article published in The Atlantic, it was said that, “ His (Trump) affect is that of an infomercial huckster; he traffics in conspiracy theories and racist invective; he is appallingly sexist; he is erratic, secretive, and xenophobic; he expresses admiration for authoritarian rulers, and evinces authoritarian tendencies himself. He is easily goaded, a poor quality for someone seeking control of America’s nuclear arsenal. He is an enemy of fact-based discourse; he is ignorant of, and indifferent to, the Constitution; he appears not to read.”
In other words, for the mainstream American media, Trump's major drawback was the fact that he was never a part of the 'New York-Washington establishment'; he was a complete outsider having no political, electoral or intellectual experience.
The 'New York-Washington establishment' comprised seasoned Democrats as well as Republicans, media, think-tanks, bureaucrats and academic elites; much like our “Delhi establishment” that includes many veteran Congress, BJP leaders.
For the American media, Trump was a highly “divisive figure” based on his views on immigrants, Muslims and Women (see the way they tore into Trump for a private comment on women, way back in 2005). And here, Trump's 'disqualification' was compounded by the fact that he was opposed by the top leadership in his own Republican party.
Did we not witness a similar trend in India in 2013 and 2014? No other prime ministerial candidate in India had ever been subjected to such rigorous public and judicial scrutiny as Modi was for his alleged role in the Gujarat riots in 2002.
Modi’s critics within the party, let alone his enemies outside, systematically fed the overwhelming sections of the national media to propagate the theory that Modi was a deeply divisive figure and that he would be a political disaster for the BJP outside Gujarat.
There was a similar vitriolic campaign suggesting that BJP would disintegrate if Modi became the prime ministerial candidate. It was also said that allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) would desert if he was chosen.
In fact, certain anti-Modi elements in the BJP did misguide the Janata Dal (United) (one of the BJP’s longstanding allies) leader and now Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, to part ways with the party over Modi, thinking that by so doing his anointment as the prime ministerial candidate of the alliance would be stalled.
But Modi then and Trump now did end up winning, meaning that they fought the odds by evolving a campaigning style that negated conventions. They travelled to every nook and corner of their respective countries. They held massive rallies instead of focusing on door-knocking and get-out-the-vote operations.
Most importantly, they did not seek votes on the basis of people's identities – they talked of “all”. That would explain why the standard or conventional analysis that Hillary would easily win because of the support of women, blacks, Muslims and Hispanics proved to be so off the mark.
And that also explains why in Modi’s case, the limitations of the often lauded identity politics of caste, creed and region were badly exposed. The results of the 2014 election proved beyond any shadow of doubt that people do not necessarily vote on the basis of caste lines.
In fact, this is the precise reason why the theory that in the forthcoming election in Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati will get all the Dalit votes or the BJP will not get any Muslim votes or all the Yadav votes will go to the ruling Samajwadi party, doesn't necessarily hold true. Voting behaviours the world over are changing and this needs to be looked at afresh by the analysts, who, in turn, must look beyond the conventional theories.
There is another striking similarity between the 2014 elections in India and the just concluded elections in the United States. That the dominant sections within both the Indian and American intelligentsia, including the media, glorify identity politics. They talk of minorities and groups, and laud the phenomenon as consolidation for their respective rights. If somebody opposes this trend, he or she is branded as communal and racist. Viewed thus, voting for a Modi or a Trump, people at large seem to have rejected this phenomenon and its champions.
Though we all must be proud of our multi-cultural and pluralistic values and cherish them at all cost, you cannot afford to do that by degrading and insulting the majority community and concentrating all the time on the minorities and groups.
And that brings about an important point. Some American journalists seem to be quick learners and have started admitting to their mistakes. Margaret Sullivan, a columnist for The Washington Post, just wrote an article titled, “The media didn’t want to believe Trump could win. So they looked the other way.”
In her piece she said, “To put it bluntly, the media missed the story. In the end, a huge number of American voters wanted something different. And although these voters shouted and screamed it, most journalists just weren’t listening. They didn’t get it. They didn’t get that the huge, enthusiastic crowds at Donald Trump’s rallies would really translate into that many votes. They couldn’t believe that the America they knew could embrace someone who mocked a disabled man, bragged about sexually assaulting women, and spouted misogyny, racism and anti-Semitism.”
Journalists in India should take cues from their American counterparts, particularly those covering the upcoming Assembly elections.