It’s time we stopped thinking of Donald Trump as an anachronism, an ugly accident in electoral history, a flash-in-the-pan. He has tapped into a very real trend and, whether he wins or loses, that trend is not going away.
There has been a radical shift in cultural norms and aspirations. The liberal space has shrunk.
His recent rebound has demonstrated most graphically the extent to which gender rights have shrunk. What’s acceptable in New York or San Fransisco does not represent any sort of avant-garde today. Rather, those metropolitan norms are a sort of rear-guard, a last stand.
That’s why both Democrats and Republicans — and the mainstream media — were wrong to presume that the leak of Trump’s `locker-room banter’ had killed his bid for the White House, and severely dented the Republican Party overall.
He might yet lose — I certainly hope he does, and that this trend would just go away — but the fact is, he has rebounded.
And his rebound stemmed not so much from his apology as from his rejecting his critics’ values and locus, and promptly returning the focus to their being elite establishment 'insiders'. To his backers, he managed to come across as the real, down-to-earth kind of guy who is unsophisticated enough to indulge in locker-room banter.
The flip side of that: his campaign’s questioning of Hillary Clinton’s health and stamina obliquely focuses on prejudices about 'the weaker sex'.
The other very distressing aspect of the illiberalism Trump represents is racism. It is upfront, in-your-face. Sadly, it’s a worldwide trend. Remember Brexit and European leaders ranging from Le Pen to Oban, and Erdogan? Well, same thing.
It’s the economy, stupid!
Let us get some perspective on this unhappy trend. Both gender rights and race equality — or at least normative political correctness on both — are really only about half-a-century old in the West-dominated world we have been led to accept as global. French women got to vote in the 1950s. Rosa Parks got to sit in front of a bus in the '60s.
This has been an unprecedented and tiny window of normative equal opportunity. Even the gender rights that Rome engendered in the last phase of its power was relative and limited to free citizens of the city.
Our recent equalities have come to seem like universal norms, but they are inextricably linked to the unprecedented economic prosperity of those booming post-War decades. Bill Clinton, one of the brightest minds to rule the US, got it right to that extent: `it’s the economy, stupid’.
I’m not saying there’s a simple correlation between wealth and inclusive liberalism. No, it’s a general sense of longterm socioeconomic security within a population that sees itself as a nation that generates welfare and rights. It’s as much about that nation feeling good and generous as about constructing social cohesion and pushing economic growth farther. For, welfare and rights-based security spreads buying power, and hence pushes production off-take, within a population.
But that’s a pendulum. For, ironically, those very rights and the luxuries and ease they brought made labour both costly and less productive, and hence their produce uncompetitive; welfarism spurred production off-take but weakened production competitiveness. This had to lead Western economies towards stagnation and, at some point, decline. A general sense of economic insecurity would inevitably stifle liberality.
So the inevitable shrinking of liberal space was written into the script even when gender and race rights became dominant trends, then universal norms. In fact, the economic boom began to peter quite soon after the gender revolutions, the Civil Rights Movement, the 1968 students’ movements, post-Modernism, and political correctness flowered. The Western economic decline could be dated to the oil shock of 1973.
Thatcherism, Reaganism and Yeltsin stifled welfarism in some of the world’s largest economies. British Labour and US Democrats reinvented themselves as liberals with less or more care for the underclass — which was obviously expanding again, although it was unfashionable now to call it a class.
Within those reinvented political frames, bubbles of one sort or another kept economies on high-tech artificial respiration - stocks, debt, investment `products,’ property, mortgages, credit cards…
Now, we are facing the crunch.
Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn represent the last spurt of liberal welfarism. It isn’t by chance that the politics of both socialists dates from that romantic `68 generation.’ But if their victories are a long shot, they're being able to get their peoples to batten down to the hard — nay, horrid — life of a re-industrialising society is even less likely.
Barack Obama understood the lesson of history. His victory speech eight years ago was not only moving, it was insightful. He made clear that there was no option but to batten down to hard work, to reinvent a productive economy. (Closer home, Manmohan Singh too was keenly aware of the critical need to spur manufacture.)
But that’s not the way Obama’s term will be remembered. It was not the trend of history: the pendulum was still swinging towards contraction. Here’s one reason: what now passes for an amorphous middle class has got used to being mass-produced university graduates, who have got used to desk, creative or managerial jobs.
So, though Obama has done well, economic prospects look as bleak in many parts of the US as they once looked endlessly Grady-Bunch-golden in the 1960s.
Trump’s typical backer is paranoid about increased taxes; she can’t pay. So she’s circling the wagons.
Trump’s anti-immigrant, racist misogyny is only one aspect of his thrust. The other is his attack on a liberal, elite establishment that (according to his narrative) doesn’t care what `outsiders’ do to the poor. On one hand, the enemy is the imagined `Black criminal’ and `Latino illegal’; on the other, elite liberalism that protects the criminal freebooter. To his backers, Trump is the knight in white shining armour who will dethrone the elite and secure the nation from these internal threats. The subtext is that he will reconfigure them as phalanxes of unquestioning workers-without-rights.
Spurting police racism in the last couple of years demonstrates the salience of the `Appeasing-Black-criminals-and-foreign-terrorists-is-no-good-shoot-`em-before-they-do’ narrative; sadly, that’s now one of the legacies of the first Black President’s second term.
That `black lives matter’ is not a major campaign thrust is a telling indicator of what lies ahead. The other side of that galling, depressing coin: Obamacare’s high-cost health welfare is a major campaign issue.
If Trump wins, welfare and inclusive values will slump further.
If he loses, the trend still won’t go away.
That matters to us. For the trend is international. It’s not just about souring welfarism among the once-wealthy. It’s also about intolerant `other’-ing by economically aspirant, socially insecure people who think they’re threatened by `outsiders.’
First Published On : Nov 4, 2016 13:23 IST