By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“…the issues you fought the election on resonated far beyond the borders of the USA. With your election…we look forward to a new world order based on the principles of the sovereign equality of all nations and non-interference in the internal affairs of nation states.” ~ Mahinda Rajapaksa’s message to Donald Trump[i]
“Our message is that Americans should draft a policy not to take away the independence and sovereignty of other nations.” ~ Afghan Taleban’s message to Donald Trump[ii]
Donald Trump’s victory is a beacon of hope to extremists of every stripe, from the Ku Klux Klan to Marine Le Pen, from Islamic extremists and Hindu nationalists to our very own Bodu Bala Sena. Reflected in Mr. Trump’s campaign slogan, Make America great again, they see the shape of their own lost paradises, a white-only Shangri la, a Hindu Raj, a Sinhala-Buddhist Kingdom, a Caliphate… Mr. Trump’s victory demonstrates the possibility of what every radical reactionary dreams of – a new national order in which the dominant racial/ethnic/religious group has special rights and the ‘Other’ can exist only on terms of explicit and structural inequality; and a new world order in which dominant groups are allowed to oppress minorities, subjugate women, exploit workers, dispossess peasants, destroy environment and act as tyrannically as they want to within their own national borders.
Mr. Trump’s victory heralds a new Zeitgeist, one pivoted on fear and hate of the ‘Other’ and embodying all the worst impulses of the human mind. It speaks not to the best in us, but the worst in us. It lends wings to the fears we fear to articulate and the hates we hate to express. It renders normal what is truly abnormal and makes possible that which should never happen. It cleaves to the parochial and abhors the mere idea of the universal, including universal franchise.
When Maithripala Sirisena won the 2015 Presidential election, the pro-Rajapaksa camp derided his victory and his presidency as ‘not-quite-legitimate’. Mr. Rajapaksa had won more Sinhala votes than Mr. Sirisena, and in the eyes of Sinhala-supremacists, that made him the real winner of the presidential election. The underlying argument was a profoundly anti-democratic one – Sri Lanka is a Sinhala land and Sinhala votes should have a greater weight in deciding the country’s ruler; any victorious candidate who fails to obtain a majority of Sinhala votes is not a legitimate president but a usurper.
It was a similar vein of racial resentment Donald Trump tapped into. He depicted the election as the last chance for white Americans to take their country back. His nomination as the presidential candidate of the Republican Party and his open and unabashed embrace of an atavistic vision of America turned the US election into a head-on battle between the cosmopolitan, open-minded side of human psyche (which is as old as civilisation and enabled it) and its older tribal half. As a commentator for Slate said, “Trump forged a politics of white tribalism and white people embraced it.”[iii]
For the first time in a long time, the sole super power is led by a man who has no problem with overt white racism, who regards the non-white people of the world as unequal beings undeserving of equality or even common respect. A closer look at Mr. Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric demonstrates this attitude. He is not against immigration per se or even illegal immigration per se; his current wife began her life in the United States by breaking immigration laws. His opponents decried this as a sign of hypocrisy, but his supporters shrugged it away, just as they shrugged away his racism and his misogyny, his tax-dodging and his vulgarity, his ignorance and his lack of compassion. They knew better. His problem – and their problem – is not with all immigrants, but with immigrants who are racially different, the non-white immigrants mostly from the Third World. When Mr. Trump said he wanted to make American great again, what he meant was he wanted to make America white again.
And every extremist everywhere, who wants to destroy the present and build on its ruins a future which is the replica of some imaginary past, is cheering.
Economic Injustice Breeds Reaction
Brexit was warning sign, but the first churnings of the tidal wave of retrogression which swept the orange-haired tycoon to victory began in Maghreb and the Middle East. The tragic failure of the Arab Spring not only killed hope for progress in the Arab world; it also opened a path to relevance for radical reaction in Europe and elsewhere.
In Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, the future warred against a politically and religiously stultified past, and lost. The bewildering series of wars which engulfed the region – and the spectacular growth of the IS – ignited a massive refugee crisis. As millions fled their war-ravaged homelands to Europe, the European ultra-right gained a new lease of life. Immigration shifted from a fringe obsession to a winning issue, xenophobia became a legitimate and respectable way of expressing patriotism and the hitherto inconceivable started to become all too hideously possible.
The victory of left-wing Syriza in Greece presented the only realistic chance of staving off the onslaught of the radical right, but that possibility was killed by the neo-liberal fundamentalists governing Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who led the EU operation to undermine Athens’ progressive experiment, is now suffering the consequences of her own success. The downward path which began with Brexit is likely to end with her political demise, together with the demise of her goal of an inclusive Europe.
History warns us, time and again, that demagogues flourish in economies which are broken, economies which manifestly fail large swathes of ordinary people. Economics played a major role in the failure of the Arab Spring. Economics also played a major role in igniting anti-immigrant hysteria across Europe and enabling Brexit to score an unexpected victory. Donald Trump’s demagoguery would not have succeeded to the degree it did, had American economic recovery been a little more equal, a little less skewed in favour of the 1%. Mr. Trump, who inherited his first million from his father, whose business practices are notoriously anti-labour, who used a legal loophole to get out of paying taxes close to a billion dollars, was able to cast himself in the unlikely role of the saviour of the white working class because there was no competition from his rivals. Race was the lynchpin of his winning bloc, but economics played a key role in forging that lynch pin.
Commenting on the electoral disaster which befell his country, astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson said that the task for the next four years is to make America smart again[iv]. Donald Trump did outperform Hillary Clinton among the less educated and the wilfully ignorant (such as climate-change deniers and evolution-deniers), according to exit polls. A more intelligent and aware electorate is necessary to keep other Trumps out of power. That is necessary. But the starting point should be the acceptance of a historically validated fact – inclusive politics cannot be sustained without inclusive economics. Economic inequality is the greatest enemy of political equality. Trying to promote political progress in a context of reactionary economics which create huge income gaps between the rich and the rest is like running a marathon with one leg.
In the US, the economy of 1% enabled the rise and the triumph of Donald Trump. That he too is a member of that 1% was not relevant; that is how demagoguery works. The only way to prevent that disastrous outcome in other lands is for progressive political parties and forces to place economic inclusivity on par with political inclusivity.
Sri Lanka, Vulnerable
Sri Lankan probably marks the last victory of the global democratic wave, the final beneficiary of a politically progressive Zeitgeist. But no victory is eternal. And in this über-globalised world, no country can isolate itself from the ideological tentacles of the incoming Zeitgeist.
Donald Trump’s victory in and of itself cannot bring about a Rajapaksa resurgence, but it enhances that possibility considerably. Not because Mr. Trump would help the Rajapaksas; we can be very certain that Mr. Trump wouldn’t be able to tell Mr. Rajapaksa and Mr. Musevini apart or find Sri Lanka on a world map. But his victory renders legitimacy to those who hate progress and yearn to return to some ideal past, to those who seek salvation through a racial/religious project led by a strong leader. As a spokesman for the Syrian Jihadist group Jabhat Fatah-al-Sham, Hamza al-Karibi tweeted jubilantly, “Trump’s victory is a powerful slap to those promoting the benefits of democratic mechanisms.”[v]
In Sri Lanka, the myth of rich Tamils, rich Muslims and rich Christians preying on poor Sinhalese and poor Buddhists is probably as old as the Dharmapala-phenomenon. That pernicious lie has remained deeply engrained, in part because no political party has challenged it. On the contrary, almost all political parties have tried to use that myth to their electoral advantage time and again. That lie will be a fundament in the Rajapaksa project to regain power. But it will resonate with the Sinhala majority only if the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration fails to deliver at least a modicum of economic justice.
The signs so far are not very encouraging. The VAT hikes indicate that this government too prefers to take the easy path of increasing indirect taxes, thereby imposing an even greater share of the burden of recovery on the poor and the middle classes. The new budget provides some marginal relief by reducing the taxes on several essential consumer items. But the budget also illustrates the government’s lack of an economic vision. This critical absence has prevented the government from abandoning the Rajapaksa strategy of massive physical infrastructure projects which bring negligible benefits to the ordinary people.
Promising million jobs doesn’t deliver million jobs. The government needs to encourage industries capable of creating employment opportunities which tally with the human resource base we have. The construction industry – including the government funded physical infrastructure projects – is no longer capable of that. So unemployment will not be dented and youth unemployment in particular will continue to remain at its current dangerously high level while more Chinese and Indian labour will have to be allowed in, to fulfil the short term demands of the construction industry.
The budget underscores that the government has failed to develop a clear path to save the existing export industries or to develop new ones. There is nothing akin to the 200 Garment Factories Programme, which created the best kind of private-public partnership and encouraged economic activity which led to job creation and income generation at village level. Handing over thousands of acres to Chinese investors in Hambantota is not development. It will worsen the living problems of the people – including the exacerbation of human-elephant conflict. So will the continuation of the Rajapaksa craze of building highways.
A government with an economic vision and cohesive goals will not penalise and discourage national savings through re-imposed taxes. A government which has a modicum of economic reason will not give free tabs to A Level students while hiking the costs of using internet. A government which has an iota of political sense will not undertake the building of the world’s tallest Christmas Tree in the world while destroying the livelihoods of a substantial segment of people in the Catholic belt via intensified dredging and sand mining.
“The taxes including a recent value added tax on health care is likely to test the popularity of the administration which has also been wracked by high profile corruption scandals…”[vi] warned a commentator. The budget is not a development budget but a money-making budget. The money made primarily via more indirect taxes will be spent on glitzy infrastructure projects and silly handouts (such as the bursary to student monks).
That is a path to economic and political disaster. At its end awaits the Rajapaksas.