2020 US Presidential Election is a referendum not only on Donald Trump, but also on his style of populist politics

It is obvious from the support for Donald Trump’s re-election bid that facts, logic and administrative acumen or its lack don’t count for much with angry people. Emotions do.

Samrat November 04, 2020 15:39:06 IST
2020 US Presidential Election is a referendum not only on Donald Trump, but also on his style of populist politics

Donald Trump. AP/File Photo

Joining the Dots is a fortnightly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire.

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The whole world is looking on with keen interest and concern as votes in the 2020 US Presidential Elections are counted, in what appears to be a far closer race than surveys predicted. Democratic contender Joe Biden said he believes he’s on track to win, but he’ll wait until every vote is counted, while Donald Trump stated (in a tweet flagged by Twitter as disputed and/or misleading) that “we are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Elections...Votes cannot be cast after the Polls are closed”. The issue, which centres on the counting of mail-in ballots, will be decided in court; Trump has said he’s taking it there. At the time of writing, it appears that final results will be delayed.

The future of democracy in the world’s leading superpower is a sufficiently major concern, but more than that is on the line: These elections are not only a referendum on Trump, but also a referendum on his style of politics, loosely referred to as “populist”. In recent years, country after country around the world has seen the election of such majoritarian populist leaders.

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Although they differ in many ways, there are certain characteristics common to these populists and their parties. A study published by Stanford University on “Global Populisms and their Challenges” identified three of these as threatening democracies: First, the hollowing out and politicisation of formal institutions of liberal democracy, such as courts, legislatures and regulatory agencies. Second, a redefinition of the people, often by excluding vulnerable ethnic or religious minorities, immigrants, and marginalised economic groups. Third, an erosion of the informal norms of democracy. “They question the loyalty of the opposition and decry criticism as fake news,” the paper, authored by Anna Grzymala-Busse, Didi Kuo, Francis Fukuyama and Michael McFaul, states.

These things will sound familiar to residents of many countries whose leaders have been playing from the same playbook. “Win, steal or lose, Trump's legacy will linger around the world, inspiring other despots and charlatans eager to stoke majoritarian grievances and mobilise them for political gain,” said historian and author Professor Jeff Kingston of Temple University, before election day. “He has been an accelerant for a glowering populist nationalism, empowering the Alt-Right at home while validating hate-mongering conspiracy theories that fan the flames of racism and intolerance everywhere. As many around the world looked on in horror at the bizarre reality show called politics in the US, they now find that the tsunami of buffoonery and malice is also floating the careers and agendas of the unhinged at home.”

What caused the “tsunami of buffoonery and malice” that the populists surfed to power?

In the American case, there are some answers. “Trump’s election and his populist appeal rested on the economic dislocations that were accentuated by the 2008 Great Recession, but even more on polarising cultural changes related to race, the role of women, and gender identity,” notes political scientist Professor Joseph S Nye of Harvard University. In an op-ed for Project Syndicate, titled ‘Is Trump a turning point in world politics?’, Nye wrote, “While he didn't win the popular vote in 2016, Trump successfully linked white resentment over the increasing visibility and influence of racial and ethnic minorities to foreign policy by blaming economic insecurity and wage stagnation on bad trade deals and immigration.”

The 2008 financial crisis was global, and polarising cultural issues have been in the headlines in many countries. Economic insecurity is a fact of life for millions of Hindus in India, including many from the higher and intermediate castes, as it is for many white people in America. Trump’s core electoral base is whites without college degrees. In a survey by Pew Research in early October, 60 percent of respondents from this demographic said they would vote for Trump, compared to 34 percent for Biden. There was also a gender skew; only 39 percent of women said they’d vote Trump, while 55 percent preferred Biden. A nationwide exit poll by Edison Research had similar findings, showing that older white males without college education were Trump’s biggest supporters.

The Liberal Left abandoned these people to the Trumps of the world. Once upon a time, being a Leftist meant having an economic and social agenda that cared about jobs and incomes of all workers irrespective of race, caste, religion, gender or sexual identity. Somewhere along the way, that inclusive character was lost. Left Liberalism became all about identity politics. The figure identified as the privileged villain of history, who must pay for his ancestors’ sins in the present, was the white man in the west, and the caste Hindu male in India. The individual condition of the person ceased to matter; the group identity was all. The reality that many individuals from these socially privileged groups were struggling to put food on the table and maintain a roof over their heads was lost on the angsty elites who propelled this brand of liberalism. Income inequality was growing, real wages falling, and job security vanishing, but the fact that this might cause distress even among white males was neglected.

Populism makes no bones about being a revolt against such elites. It is no surprise that older white males, mostly less educated, poorer, and from rural areas, finding nothing but hostility from liberals, ran into the waiting arms of Trump, and carried him on their shoulders to victory. In the American case, their revolt was ironically led by a tax-cheating billionaire, but one who presented himself as a class traitor. If not for the blow dealt by COVID-19 , Trump may well have won his second term by a landslide.

The enduring economic pain of the pandemic, in addition to the obviously deep cultural, racial and religious rifts that have developed, will provide fertile breeding grounds globally for anger and unrest. It is obvious from the support for Trump’s re-election bid that facts, logic and administrative acumen or its lack don’t count for much with angry people. Emotions do. In the absence of an inclusive economic and social agenda which appeals to people across identity barriers emotionally, populism of Right and Left will thrive. New Trumps will rise.

After all, electoral democracy is, in today’s world of 24x7 media, an unending reality show and popularity contest.

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