Like long COVID, there is long Trump

The rise of Donald Trump should have spurred a more honest national self-reflection in the U.S.

November 13, 2020 12:02 am | Updated 12:17 am IST

The COVID-19 pandemic has had the paradoxical effects of reinforcing U.S. President Donald Trump’s politics on the one hand and contributing to his electoral defeat on the other. Mr. Trump had everything going for him until the novel coronavirus arrived. It disrupted his campaign for a second term, but ironically, reinforced a wide spectrum of his politics — travel restrictions, national manufacturing, economic nationalism, and, most significantly, belligerence towards China. The winning campaign of the President-elect, Joe Biden , put Mr. Trump on the mat for his COVID-19 response, but it also appropriated his ‘America First’ agenda in manufacturing and anti-China rhetoric .

The universal liberal euphoria over Mr. Trump’s electoral defeat is based on flawed reasoning as was the desolation over his victory in 2016. Ahead of the 2016 presidential election , there were two types of challenges to the neoliberal political and economic order. Bernie Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist, offered a more structured critique of the American neoliberal order than Mr. Trump’s scattergun approach. Mr. Trump’s cocktail of cultural and economic nationalism inebriated the nation but it turned victorious also because the establishment would rather deal with it than the Sanders model. Mr. Trump convinced the poor that they had shared interests with America’s wealthiest and their enemies were other poor people of different colour or religion.

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Mr. Trump’s savage cultural politics, ego and bluster became the focus of the opposition to him and the underlying reasons of his appeal were overlooked by design or debility. Trumpian cultural politics was countered with liberal cultural politics — of sexual, ethnic and religious minorities, of gender rights, topped up with environmentalism.

Cultural vs. economic worries

Studies and surveys claimed to have empirically established that cultural anxieties, not economic dispossession, were the driver of Mr. Trump’s politics. One such ‘study’ found 68% of white working-class voters apparently believed the “American way of life needs to be protected from foreign influence”. Who in the world would say ‘no’ if such a question is framed! And, this in a country that is upfront about the exceptionalism of their way of life! Such dubious ‘evidence’ of cultural anxieties ranking above economic issues became the basis of liberals dismissing the political responses of the ‘non college-educated whites’ as little more than racism. Cultural anxieties are real for sure, but they work in conjunction with other factors.

Also read | Trump calls racism ‘evil’ and slams white supremacists, neo-Nazis

Surveys this year too asked respondents to assign an order of priority to a bunch of issues — say COVID-19, immigration, economy, race relations — on the baseless assumption that these are isolated factors. Someone can be opposed to migration and be hostile to other communities because the economy is battered due to COVID-19 or they were infected.

It bears repeating that material conditions and situations shape political behaviour. Those who consider the human body as an inviolable space now support a mask mandate; those who are generally supportive of free movement of people across borders, now want laws that force people to lock up in their homes. To tell the working class that they must lose their jobs today to avoid an environmental apocalypse 50 years later is bad enough; to assume that those who are incapable of caring about the environment are actually agitated over their grandchildren living in a more diverse country is logical fallacy.

Trump’s electoral legitimacy

Another mainstream response to Mr. Trump’s victory was to question the legitimacy of his election itself by linking it to Russian influence operation and calling into question the utility of the Electoral College mechanism itself. A key purpose of inserting intermediaries between the voters and the chief executive in a representative democracy is to stall mobocracy and make the process more thoughtful. This creates anomalies, such as Mr. Trump winning the presidency without winning the popular vote, and the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi winning 55% Lok Sabha seats with 37% popular votes concentrated in a limited area. In India, if a party can win 272 Lok Sabha seats each with a margin of one vote, it can rule the whole country regardless of what happened in the other 271 seats.

Also read | Trump is not conceding. What’s next?

But dismantling of the intermediaries in a representative democracy is a dream, not of the pluralist, but of the demagogue. Representations are anyway also linked to the size of the population — the distribution of the EC votes shifts according to the changes in population distribution

It is ironic that those who stand for pluralism base their argument on popular vote — which is actually a call for demagogy. The ability of the uneducated to choose for themselves has been questioned ever since democracy debates began, but it is paradoxical when it comes from a position that speaks for pluralism. Echoing in the liberal derision of the white working class, paradoxically again, is the European coloniser view of the earlier inhabitants of the continent as soulless, primitive creatures whose opinion mattered little. A moral superiority is assigned to the high-skilled, technologically advanced, resourceful immigrants recruited from around the world, and constantly arriving on the coasts, over the wretched and the wrecked in the hinterlands. To inoculate from Trump politics, a different strain of the same affliction is being used. It is now Mr. Trump’s turn to return the favour, which he generously will, by questioning the legitimacy of Mr. Biden’s election. Neither party trusts the election system unless it wins.

Also read | Trump not conceding poll defeat is an embarrassment, says Biden

Media’s troubling response

The American media’s response to the rise of Mr. Trump has been equally troubling. While one segment became his unabashed promoters, the self-styled mainstream media, with isolated exceptions, took it upon itself to bring him down.

The American media’s unquestioning deference to the country’s security establishment is historical, but under the Trump presidency, that became even more intense. It is good that the President gets questioned, but it is certainly not good that his opponent does not get questioned. Long-held principles of journalism were thrown out of the window. In its willingness to fall for numerous unsubstantiated stories about the President and in the refusal to truthfully examine Mr. Biden’s track record, the U.S. media thought nothing mattered more than saving democracy from Mr. Trump. It is likely that the U.S. media will handle Mr. Biden with kid gloves while it continues to investigate Mr. Trump. This double standard lends credibility to the view that a cartel of vested interests controls the U.S.

What Biden must address

The presence of Mr. Trump in the White House should have spurred a more honest national self-reflection, but the elites who could have led this, pivoted to do the exact opposite. Once all the crises were pinned on Mr. Trump, there was no other end to pursue, other than his defeat. He became the excuse to avoid any relook of the neoliberal order. All that burden is now on Mr. Biden, who has made a good start by reaching out to the white working class during his campaigning.

Also read | America is a ‘beacon for the globe’, says Biden

The liberal ecosystem of the U.S. had gone into a cytokine storm — immune overreaction that causes more harm than the affliction itself such as in COVID-19 — in response to Mr. Trump. Mr. Biden benefited from it, but now he needs to calm it. He needs to address the morbidities of America — the trust deficit in the country’s election system, the brutality of its economic order, the chaos of its cultural politics. Or else, Trump politics will linger around as a restless ghost. In defeat, the support for Mr. Trump swelled by eight million votes, compared to 2016. Like Long COVID, there is Long Trump.

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