This presidential hopeful called Trump
Into politics has made a big jump
His speeches loquacious
Are truly audacious
And may lead to an American slump
The American Dream has seduced millions across the world, ever since the docking of the Mayflower in Provincetown Harbor in 1620 and the establishment of the first settlement at Plymouth, Massachusetts. In recent years, the dream started souring with the 2008 meltdown and a gridlocked Congress which could never agree on legislation. The aftermath of 9/11 also saw the growth of a xenophobic distrust of certain categories of human beings, typified by humiliating airport searches and surveillance of those who did not fit into the neat, comfortable definition of “us”. But never in their wildest dreams would most Americans have ever visualised that a rank pretender to the post of the President of America would not only secure the Republican Party nomination but also be in serious contention for the top job come the eighth of November. Like a master bridge player, Donald has Trumped his Republican opponents and virtually rewritten the rules of political debate. The American Dream is giving way to the American Nightmare, with likely precipitous consequences not only for that nation but for the rest of the world as well.
The bruising election campaign is symptomatic of the strains America has gone through in the first fifteen years of the twenty first century. The nearly two century old Monroe Doctrine has been tested in North America only twice, the first time when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. The second attack of 9/11 was the first assault on mainland America, with the emphasis moving from state to non-state actors. Since that fateful day, America has seen a gradual, creeping erosion of her preeminent political and economic status, which seemed to have been secured after the collapse of the former Soviet Union. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have ended in bloody stalemates and laid the foundations for even more bitter conflicts across the Middle East. Syrian refugees pour into Europe, straining the social fabric of the countries on that continent. The Arab Spring has turned into winter. The Islamic State is still to be comprehensively subdued. And terrorism has truly become a decentralised, cottage industry, when any person with a warped ideological mindset can lay his (and increasingly her) hands on weapons of mass destruction to wreak havoc on unsuspecting (but increasingly fearful) populations.
But it would be naive to believe that the rise and rise of Donald Trump is reflective of only recent trends in the popular mood. In her seminal work “The Authoritarian Dynamic”, Australian academic Karen Stenner has underlined the importance of the prevalence of an “authoritarian predisposition” among segments of a population that extends beyond animosity to just one group, ideology or evolving social value. This predisposition is latent in the individual when economic and social conditions seem stable but is activated when a normative threat is perceived. It then manifests itself in three forms of intolerance — racial (fuelled by ethnic or religious diversity), political (against dissent, as expressed by divergent views) and moral (opposed to deviance in sexuality-related or other issues pertaining to morality). The authoritarian individual’s threat perception is particularly activated by the lack of consensus in society (as reflected in widely varying views on political, social and economic issues) and a loss of faith in the ability of politicians and the prevailing political system and institutions to manage and minimise these differences. This “American authoritarian prototype” (white-male-Protestant-heterosexual) constitutes the core of Trump supporters and its genesis predates Trump’s entry into the political arena.
Since the end of the Second World War, America has been a participant in theatres of armed conflict in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. The less than successful interventions in the new millennium in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East have punctured the myth of American armed invincibility. The Iraq invasion exposed the duplicity and lying of the American political elite as they capitalised on the fear psychosis created by 9/11 to promote narrow partisan interests. The “open society” was riven by suspicion and mistrust, even as accounts of use of extrajudicial measures and human rights violations against prisoners of war created disquiet amongst thinking, sensitive sections of the US public.
It took almost one hundred years after the end of a civil war waged to abolish black slavery to formalise the equal status of blacks in the USA through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While this legislation has been followed in letter (if not always in spirit), the American authoritarian prototype has never really reconciled to the loss of his erstwhile superior, separate status. The growing presence of blacks in the government and private sectors, including at increasingly higher levels, has raised the hackles of especially those of their white brethren who have lost out in the education and employment sweepstakes. The ascension to the top job in 2008 of a black man only served to reinforce this bitterness and brought to the top the latent anti-black prejudice, as witnessed by the cheap slander of the incumbent President’s personal life and consistent efforts to derail his policies.
The icing on the cake came with the bursting of the housing bubble in 2008. Virtually overnight, working class families were plunged in debt with severe erosion in asset values. The credibility of politicians hit a new low with the common perception that Wall Street got away with murder, thanks to a sympathetic government in Washington, DC. Add to this the fear of loss of jobs to Chinese, Indians and those from a host of emerging economies and you have a situation tailor-made for the appearance of a demagogue: Trump stepped into the breach, virtually hijacking the Republican nomination. Americans have now reached a position where voting for either candidate is seen as a choice between “the devil and the deep blue sea.” Neither is seen as having the ability to heal the growing fissures and discontent in American society, Trump because of his extreme positions on minorities, the economy and foreign policy, and Clinton, because of her perceived links to a tainted political and financial establishment.
Many commentators see the implications of this “authoritarian predisposition” extending well beyond just the current election. If Trump wins, it is extremely doubtful if he will be able to walk his talk, but the continued use of a divisive and demagogic approach to issues will cause irreparable damage to the social fabric of the world’s longest-existing democracy. If Clinton wins, but her Democratic Party fails to gain control of the two Houses of Congress, the US will go through another phase of paralysis in policy-making at a time when it faces global challenges on various fronts. Even if her Presidency is accompanied by Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress, civil strife could still be a grim reality, given the rising assertiveness of the black minority, the reality of joblessness for the less-educated white population and the evolution of unipolar challenges to America’s dominance on the world economic and political stage.
Just over a hundred years ago, on the eve of the First World War, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey presciently observed “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”. Europe is going through the throes of an existential crisis today with the very idea of a liberal democratic system, founded on pluralism, free speech and diversity, being questioned: the Brexit saga was just one of its manifestations. The virus is spreading across continental Europe, exacerbated by the Syrian refugee crisis. Its existence in the New World across the Atlantic shows the resilience of this strain, with the credulous belief that a “strong man” can solve all the problems confronting citizens today. Karen Stenner reaches a rather sobering conclusion in her book “If there are inherent predispositions to intolerance of difference…and if those predispositions are actually activated by the experience of living in a vibrant democracy, then freedom feeds fear that undermines personal freedom, and democracy is its own undoing”. Even the political scientist Francis Fukuyama who, in his book “The End of History and the Last Man”, had been optimistic, in the heady years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, of the prospects for the universal spread of liberal democracy has qualified his optimism by expressing doubts as to whether, having reached the liberal democratic destination, citizens might not again look for new political arrangements. The USA, in 1776, acted as a beacon on the democratic road taken by other countries: we can only hope that 2016 does not set humankind on an altogether different, destructive path.