By Mohamed Harees –
‘Trump’s deep narcissism acted as a distorted mirror for millions of voters’ – Hadley Freeman (The Guardian UK)
The triumph of ‘Trumpism’ is the big takeaway from US election, not Trump’s probable defeat. Rising ‘wokeness’ in the US is the fuel driving this populist demagogy. “Wokeness” incidentally is a fairly new phenomenon which is becoming more powerful by the month in the US, which associates itself with breaking away from any kind of rationality and logic and complete subjugation of the self to emotions, especially hatred towards the modern world. The fixes to America’s problems are manifold, complex and painstaking. A vaccine will not suddenly banish the ongoing Corona pandemic. Nor would Trump’s defeat magically bring an end to Trumpism.
As Charles Kupchan, a Georgetown University political scientist, former diplomat, and the author of Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself From the World said, “There’s no question in my mind that it’s the most important election in American history. The stakes are just enormous”. In many ways, the US elections matter much more than perhaps at any time since World War II. With the most rancorous campaign in contemporary history, the elections are gripping global attention. We could, as a consequence of the result, see a gradual renewal of the American global imprimatur, or a speedy erasure of Washington’s international footprint.
As the ballot-counting drags on, Trump’s fate is still on the balance. Many of his opponents; nay, the world outside is hoping for his defeat in the US presidential election that will spell an end to his breed of politics. There are sure signs that incumbent President is on the brink of losing his place in the White House. American historians have already earmarked his term as among the worst in their nation’s 244-year history, with consistently risking American lives as witnessed during the Corona pandemic, jeopardized the country’s national security, alienated longstanding allies while snuggling up to avowed adversaries. He virtually destroyed whatever remained of US image and credibility in the wider world as a result of his divisive, racist, populist and arrogant attitudes both within and outside US borders.
The last four years have, for instance, witnessed an American unilateral withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, Iran nuclear deal, Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, UNESCO, UN Human Rights Council, World Health Organization (WHO), Open Skies Treaty, and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and a weakening of many multilateral institutions and relationships with long-standing allies, including those in Europe. The most head-spinning feature of the Trump presidency is his contempt for the truth. All politicians prevaricate, but his administration has given America “alternative facts”. Nothing Trump says can be believed—including his claims that Biden is corrupt. The narrative of isolationism is part of any 101 course on American history; from the farewell address by George Washington, in September 1976. But, Trump of course, customised isolationism in his own image: a combination of victimhood, exceptionalism and entitlement; blaming the outside world for all the ills of the unique US.
Trump eventually dragged the national and global discourse further and further into the gutter — setting a horrible example for the next generation of US and world leaders. Trump may not be entirely responsible for America’s wounds. However, as the distinguished conservative columnist Bret Stephens in New York Times in June 2020 identified, Trump “is the reason some of those wounds have festered and why none of them can heal, at least for as long as he remains in office.”
This car crash Trump Presidency did not emerge from nowhere and the descent of the Republicans into a place that allowed them to see Trump as the answer is a long one. Trump’s campaign slogan – ‘Make America Great Again’ – was an invocation of a nostalgic, imagined and inherently conservative past, and offered a glimpse of the ambitious agenda to re-organize American institutions that lay at its heart. His journey through declaring for the Republican nomination in 2015, winning it in 2016, to defeating Hillary Clinton in the US Presidential race, only occurred because the Republicans had already played with toxic politics.
While many people were stunned, Trump won in 2016, one person saw it coming, and embraced it wholeheartedly: libertarian billionaire Peter Theil. He claimed that Americans supportive of Trump’s candidacy – including himself – were taking Trump ‘seriously but not literally’. It implied that those opposed to Trump’s candidacy took him literally but not seriously. In retrospect, Thiel nailed the Trump phenomenon. Researchers are also now seeking to understand Trumpism as an emerging ideology- a ‘Trumpist’ political ideology, style of governance, political movement and an American version of the right-wing conservative and national populist sentiment seen in multiple nations worldwide and holds some aspects of illiberal democracy.
But Trumpism won’t go away. There will be a four-year campaign of far-right resistance to a Biden presidency. The rule of law, eroded badly under Trump, will come under threat from militias, online hate campaigns and far-right groups. Police departments will become a political battleground, just as they were in interwar Europe. Far from being over, his end may not be the end of Trumpism, as we may call it. On the contrary, it may even be the start of a new chapter in its history. Narcissists see what they want to see. What makes Trump more unusual is that an astonishing number of people see what they want to see when they look at him. In Authoritarian Nightmare: Trump and his Followers, John W Dean and Bob Altemeyer rightly say that ‘Trumpism is not about Trump at all, but about his followers and their own psychological predispositions. They look at him and see what they want to see: themselves’. The pre-eminence of Trumpism within the Party is thus not just about one man’s ability to garner attention and appeal to a significant portion of the electorate. It’s also about the deeper currents of thought that he has tapped into – and which long predated his fateful ride down the escalator at Trump Tower in June 2015.
There will be many long-term effects of this wanton, shameless vandalism and debasement of the office of the US President. There is no reason to believe the GOP’s next generation of leaders would dispense with Trumpism hastily. The Trump doctrine — xenophobia, animosity to immigration, racial resentment and hatred of all things liberal — is almost certain to continue as the most powerful force in the Republican Party. It is a performance of nationalism, one that triangulates between open chauvinism in favour of the dominant ethnic group and narrow appeals to inclusion, with the promise of material gain for anyone who joins his coalition.
As long as Trump himself remains in the public eye – which he is expected to do, win or lose – his outsize persona will ensure that his political brand dominates the Republican Party for the foreseeable future. There is no denying that Trump has changed the Republican party, and even if he loses this election, he and his brand of toxic politics aren’t going anywhere. He and his following are a huge political force in America. The ingredients in and the conditions that gave rise to Trumpism are still there. Hyper-partisanship, blue-collar deaths of despair, the China threat and middle-class insecurity and hate towards the ‘Other’ are all worse, or as bad, as four years ago. Most of those looking to follow Trump, such as Mike Pompeo, his secretary of state, or Tom Cotton, the Arkansas senator, are harder-line versions of him without the caprice. As a Japan Times article stated, ‘there’s no question that he is one of the greatest polarizing political figures of modern history. His supporters adore him, and his opponents revile him. There is no middle ground on Donald Trump’.
Trump, and his style of populism, is now inseparable from the Republican Party brand. His most ardent of supporters treat him like an infallible Roman ruler – they have taken to chanting “we love you” at his rallies – and many Republican politicians have jumped on the Trump train to ride his electoral success. Trump and his GOP, uses white supremacy and racism to stoke fear and foment the flames of division. He has so dominated the thinking of the Republican Party for the past four years that there hasn’t been any more room for new leaders to emerge, for new ideas to emerge to counter Trumpism or offer an alternative view point or way forward. Beyond COVID-19, American life was shaken this year by political and social divisions over police violence, institutional racism, and white supremacy. Trump, particularly did not condemn white supremacy in his first presidential debate performance because a significant proportion of his supporters embrace this ideology.
Be it as it may. while populism as a political force can be nebulous, it is hard to believe that a Biden election would suddenly restore public faith in society’s leaders. Populism in its most basic form of believing in “the rot at the top” — that the general public are poorly served by elites who are selfish, corrupt, irresponsible, and who abuse their power — is likely to continue as a factor in American politics. Trump was carried along in 2016 by some salient and often under-discussed issues and attitudes. As his first term winds up, those issues are not really resolved, and haven’t gone away. A Biden presidency might find itself facing a congressional opposition that offers a version of Trumpism without Trump.
Some historians are making comparisons of the U.S. to the Weimar Republic, noting Germany in the early 1930s. Obviously, neither Hitler nor fascism is coming around the corner in the US. But, the fact that such a comparison can even be considered by a serious political scientist with a straight face shows how far things have degenerated. “America will never be destroyed from the outside,” Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying. “If we falter and lose our freedom, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” The prospect of such destruction has come very close during Trump’s years in the White House and is not likely to disappear even after his exit.
Trump may thus leave the White House; Trumpism, unchecked by US institutions, uncontained by his political party, will live on. Despite the near certain Biden’s entry to White House, it was not a landslide win. Trump and the Republicans in that sense defied expectations – and proved, yet again, that we shouldn’t believe poll predications. A decisive repudiation of Trumpism and the Republican Party did not materialise in the way many of us hoped. Trumpism will remain sadly, as a viable political strategy at least for the foreseeable future.