By H. L. D. Mahindapala –
If there is one slogan that swung the political pendulum and placed Donald Trump in the presidential seat it is the one that screamed : MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN. It summed up in a simple and digestible pill the pre-election plight, frustrations, failures of the America’s policies – both domestic and foreign. It expressed succinctly Donald Trump’s version of American nationalism + racism. It was also his panacea for all the ills of America. In his brash style he marketed his slogan which resonated well with the disillusioned voters looking for a change. Donald Trump was the right man who came from nowhere to capture the right mood of a frustrated nation that was made to believe it was under siege by the alien enemies.
Inherent in the catchy slogan is the admission that America had failed abroad and at home. Only a failed project / adventure / history needs to be made great again. Greatness is in being at the peak. Greatness need not be revived if it had maintained its greatness of being at the peak. For instance, there is no need to add greatness to the Himalayas. Its irrefutable stature is there for all to acknowledge. It is only if it looses its pre-eminent height that greatness has to be restored, if possible. The promise of making American great again meant, in essence, that America has failed and, therefore, the need of the hour was to make it great again.
Underlying this cry was American patriotism. Trump convinced his compatriots that America, “the indispensable nation” of the world, was not great because it is infested with the Muslims, Latinos, homosexuals, the corrupt establishment, the biased media, anti-Trump women, the “rigged” electoral system and whoever else came within his sights. In short, he raised the banner for reformation and revivalism. It is a cry that went down well in the American electorate. Using this slogan he presented himself as the saviour of America to make it great again. And the Americans bought it, from coast to coast.
His message went deep into the insecure psyche of the frustrated Americans. The exploding cities, schools, suburbia and neighbourhoods were threatening to turn the American dream into a nightmare. Terrorists both at home and abroad were targeting the certainties and values of American society driven almost to the edge. Besides, unfolding global events confirmed that America has entered the new age of decline. Apart from the irreversible rise of China, challenging American hegemony in the global arena, it is the failures of the Obama–Clinton administration that energised and pumped oxygen into Trump’s slogan, MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN. With this slogan, Trump tapped into the roots of American nationalism, combined with a heavy dose of racism. His campaign rhetoric ruthlessly targeted the minorities making it clear that America belonged to the consolidated front of WARMs – the White American Right-wing Males. And he won!
Trump’s victory is proof of the power of grass root politics. His campaign is remarkable for stripping all the cant with which America’s image of a liberal society was clothed. He turned himself into a one-man juggernaut that ran over all those who stood in his way. Human rights, minority rights, the rigid establishment, theoretical academics, mega millions of the well-oiled Clinton machinery, and even sections of the Republican Party were swept away in Trump’s tsunami of down-to-earth politics. Not even the Tamil coconuts of Jaffna, dashed to invoke the blessings of Tamil gods, could stop the epic Odyssey of Trump that ran effervescently all the way to the White House. As an aside, it should be noted that the gods have once again rejected the Tamil fantasies in defeating Clinton. .
The Obama-Clinton administration must take full responsibility for their failure. They had dug their grave abroad more than at home. Obama had rescued the economy from one of its greatest falls and was climbing back, slowly but surely. But like all imperialist masters, they believed that America’s interests abroad can be served best by replacing the anti-American status quo with pro-American stooges. This is something they never learnt from the time CIA engineered the murder of Dinh Diem, the Catholic stooge they planted in Buddhist Vietnam. When things don’t go the American way they do not hesitate to eliminate their political mates swiftly. Or change the regime. Or buy deals like in Iran which are, at best, dicey gambles that can give some breathing space for some time.
Trump painted Hillary Clinton as the mother of all American disaster. Each time Trump went for her the crowd responded by yelling : “Lock her up!” Like her foreign policy she misread the election campaign. She was either caught napping on the job (Where the hell was she when the Libyans were killing American diplomats?), or backing the wrong horse. Example: At the critical moment when the Sri Lankan forces were on the verge of crushing the Tamil Tiger terrorists she went all out to save them by putting pressure on the GOSL. Her e-mails reveal that she was turning the screws on the IMF to stop funding GOSL. As usual she backed the wrong horse. Nor did the coloured revolutions that began in Tunisia turn out to be roses. Hilary had to pay dearly for her Libyan disaster. What has America and UK got in return for regime change in Libya?
Regime change became the standard strategy of Obama-Clinton administration. The Middle Eastern instability that is spinning out of American control today is the result of Obama-Clinton’s regime changes gone awry. Of course, it began with Bush’s messy invasion of Iraq. Obama-Clinton administration refined it, reinforced it, and pursued it to the bitter end, leaving a legacy that had dragged down America to its flat bottom. After Obama-Clinton failures there was nowhere to go except up. Trump’s slogan MAKE AMERICA GREAT captured the despair and the frustrations of the American public who saw no way out of the Americans sliding down the greasy pole.
This slogan was not confined to politics. It extended to economic nationalism too. On the one hand, it meant keeping the Mexicans, the Muslims and other selected aliens out of America. And, on the other, it meant keeping the jobs, American capital, and American investors at home. The Mexican Wall, like the Chinese Wall, became the highest symbol that was going to keep the alien hordes out of America and save the economy, ensure security and protect purity of American values threatened by aliens. The Mexican Wall became the shining symbol of Trump’s politics. It signified his willingness to do the repugnant and the unthinkable to save America. Primarily, he played on the security of Americans which, he said, was threatened on all fronts. He went all out to play his unconventional cards to beat all conventional politics of Washington. He provided his own media coverage by shooting from the hip, a la John Wayne. He took the road that was less travelled – and that made all the difference.
The commentariat see him going down the new wave of anti-globalisation movement that took Britain out of EU. The new nationalism is essentially economic, rebelling against globalisation. As in Brexit, the people are recoiling from threats to their sovereignty, identity and security. Donald Trump led a movement of economic nationalism which was anathema to even the Republican establishment. At a time when globalisation meant free flow of capital and labour across borders he led a movement to build walls. He is the new messiah of nationalist capitalism. He aims to renegotiate the borderless order of globalisation. A billionaire who built his fortune on Chinese steel, cheap Mexican labour, and cutting deals with foreigners is now planning to do a U-turn. Can he achieve his ambitious goal?
Well, the fears of UK crumbling after Brexit have vanished. Trump’s economic nationalism may prove to be the turning point to make America great again. Let’s face it, whether we like it or not, Trump’s journey from nowhere – without even his Party’s support at one stage – to the peak of political power is an astounding phenomenon. Normally it is the party that carries the party to victory. But this time round, it was Trump that carried the Party to victory. He swept the board. It was a one-man show.
The style and the substance belonged to Trump – and to him alone. It was crude, it was rough. It was blunt but the masses lapped it up as if it was manna from heaven. His message, his confident tone and his messianic attitude resonated well with the voters that took him to power. Looking back it is clear that Trump was the messiah that America was waiting for. He articulated all their frustrations and aspirations. He is the street fighter who took on the elitist establishment dressed in Emperor’s clothes and beat them hollow.
In short, the Americans have embraced him as the messiah who would take them to the promised land. His followers have implicit faith in him. By and large, they are the WARMists who are bent on taking American back to its roots. Trapped in his own creation, Trump has little room to deviate from the promises he made – all of which were defined by him. His success is due not only to his remarkable ability to define America his way but also to plot his political path on his terms. How far deep he can go from where he is now depends on the unforeseen forces that will confront Trump on his way forward and trip him. Can he, for instance, make America great again without building porous walls? Sooner or later, someone in his camp will, no doubt, remind him of the memorable lines of Robert Frost: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, / That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, / And spills the upper boulders in the sun.”
He is bound find out that his idiosyncratic but populist answers he handed out to the cheering crowds in the campaign may not be valid when he sits down to face the nitty-gritty in his Oval Office. Translating promises into reality has been bane of all politicians. Can he, for instance, make America great again by dismantling the time-tested global alliance put together in the post-WWII decades? Can he withdraw into “Fortress America” abandoning the traditional allies to fend for themselves? Is he going to abandon the far-flung American empire, with nearly 1,000 bases girdling the globe? Doesn’t America’s greatness in the global theatre depend on the greatness of its allies?
The ideological Trump who went over the top in the campaign will have to tone down the aggressive rhetoric and, no doubt, come down to viable pragmatism.
If he shot like an arrow from the back of nowhere straight to the White House the next phase is not going to be that smooth. The hard liners he has appointed so far to his Cabinet indicate that he is gearing for the gruelling battles awaiting him round the corner. Some see him as a loose cannon. Apart from his unpredictability, he seems to be obsessed with his mission of making America great again. Therein lies the rub. In an ominous – or is it imperial? – statement he has sworn to make Mexico pay for the wall that is going to protect America. Is there a message in this for the rest of the world? He is declaring that even the long time allies will now have to pay their share if they want to be America’s friends. In Trump’s world there is no such thing as a free lunch. Someone, of course, will have to pay to make America great again. Being the hard-nosed businessman Trump’s declared policy is to demand for his pound of flesh.
Is the post-Obama world ready to pay all the way to make Trump’s America great again? Why should the world be made to pay for the self-inflicted wounds of America?