“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”- A Tale of Two Cities
As the US election results came out and Donald Trump readied for his acceptance speech, the doomsday prophets of social media who had haunted his campaign stepped up their attacks. Only now, the tone had become more comic than sinister as the writing on the wall stared down upon the citizens of the US and those abroad interested in the outcome. Protests, so far peaceful, have erupted in the US; optimists are looking for ways to impeach the president-elect; and the glass-half-empty Californians are contemplating secession.
Is Mr Trump really the end of the American political system as we know it or does he even mark a sea change in its evolution? As an Indian observer, one ought to get over the optics of the unfolding drama soon but perhaps also spend a little time reflecting on the turn of events. Not only because our own country has had a turbulent year and is preparing for more (with demonetization in the saddle now) but also because one cannot help but notice the similarities between how the 2016 US elections and 2014 Indian elections were fought and won.
The Joke’s on You!
Firstly, in both India in 2014 and the US today, sections of news media first denied the possibility of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s and Trump’s eligibility for candidacy and continued to laugh them off. After these men won, these naysayers were blamed for messing up their analysis and wasting precious time blinding their readers to a reality which had been long overdue. Secondly,the liberals in both countries are blamed for complacency, self-righteousness, and dwelling in their echo chambers even as the people carefully paved the way for their respective populist leaders. They have been blamed for feigning shock at the audacity of these leaders as they violated established norms of propriety and unabashedly embraced right-wing nationalism, xenophobia, and bigotry on a host of socio-political problems.
Thirdly, both the Congress and the Democratic Parties are held responsible for ignoring candidates with better qualifications, better appeal, and better prospects in favour of the impotent and the status-quoists. Rahul Gandhi and Hillary Clinton might be worlds apart but both their parties made the same blunders and alienated voters with an alarming even though purely coincidental congruity. Fourthly, post-election analysis in both countries placed itself in two clear orbits – one which diagnosed the outcome as nothing less than a revolution; the other which extolled the crestfallen masses to now put their weight behind institutional checks and balances and be eternally vigilant in order to hold the victor more accountable than ever and change him for the better before he could change the country for the worse.
With the benefit of hindsight gained here at home, we could even predict what would happen in the US in the future. If Trump’s acceptance speech is anything to go by, he is off conquest mode and poised for the exercise of power. That begins with consolidating gains and expanding legitimacy. Like PM Modi did before him, Trump acted generous towards Hillary in his moment of victory; thanked Americans across identity divides; stacked his “debts of gratitude” high enough to downplay his own notorious narcissism; and promised to unite the country to make it great again for“all Americans”. The opposition, both Clinton and President Barack Obama, postured graciously and offered their bits to Trump’s legitimacy as the new commander-in-chief. The first few years of the new president’s term are going to be about him keeping his opponents off balance and making his own persona irreproachable by engaging in positive gestures both at home and abroad. Dramatic policy upturns will be cooked in secret and made public with a strategic timing – best when his opponents are battling his supporters on social media or in the streets over irreconciliable perceptions. The liberals will stage their moments of protest and decry rising intolerance in American society. Trump will be cast as the silent but willing amplifier of all things going wrong in America.
Nothing Personal, Business as Usual
If it is not already clear, this is not the “season finale” of America. No matter how captivating the superlatives, democracy as a sustainable political system is about change and continuity complementing each other. One may even venture that the bigger the wave of change on the surface, the stronger the undertow of continuity. As children of history and eager students of it by choice, we know better. Every point of coincidence mentioned in the previous segment and many more such similarities between India and the US tell us that these are unique phenomena, not accidental but made possible by design only in democratic polities. Nobody ever promised that democracies would be about absolute coherence, agreement on unified grand visions, or universal consensus. It should surprise us more to see die-hard democratic idealists lose heart over citizens who didn’t agree with their vision and forget that the idealism has to be about consensus-building, the process not the end product. Sure, Putin may raise a toast and Hitler may smirk from his grave but only because they would never know better.
What’s more shocking is that people all over the world with the vantage point of not being Americans are suddenly treating the US as the dreamland gone to dogs. If those who never desist from accusing US foreign policy for making a mess and carrying too big a stick, now feel bad for American society, we must feel overjoyed at the upsurge in liberal democratic convictions in the world. It should certainly overshadow the plight of the American citizen who is much better equipped institutionally and individually to rebuild her system if at all it lies in ruins.
A Teaching Moment
Be it Commodore Matthew Perry’s gunboat diplomacy, President James Monroe’s declaration of American primacy in the Western Hemisphere, or President Theodore Roosevelt’s Big Stick, America has been the force majeure in our world for good or for bad. It has punished mass murderers and been complicit with them too. Yet, the humanitarian values that the American populace champions have endured. This is not different at all from ancient Greece or Rome or Imperial Britain, where oligarchs, tyrants, and monarchs passed but the evolution of democracy and liberal principles endured and progressed. Trump is not a revolution and nor is he even an exception in the longue durée of this evolution. He will not be the last of his tribe either but he could certainly prove a far better leader in the final analysis than an eyewash presidency of an African American or a woman because of the uncomfortable conversations he will trigger and sustain which can usher in change that endures and not just looks doable. A constant thorn in the side is a far better reminder of the harsh realities of human existence than a mirage which lures us further into delusions.