Tuesday, November 15, 2016

After the Funeral

“Mr Trump was the cruellest candidate since George Wallace” – Garrison Keillor

Victories are savoured when expected, baffling when they are not. Predictions are fun when they turn out to be correct, not so when they do not. Elections, it must hence be said, are less about choosing winners than about making forecasts, tallying what was expected with what came about, and ensuring that the top dog makes it to (what else?) top. That is why critics of representative democracy, chortling at that term with no mean sense of humour, have baptised candidates who triumphed at the polls as selected, not elected. The guy who clinches the throne and crown twice, on that basis, is reselected. And when that guy loses, all hell tends to break lose.

I don’t count myself among the Sri Lankans who think that the US Election has implications for us. Fact is, there really aren’t any, and if there are, we can only predict and forecast as to what they are with limited success. Of course Donald Trump won, of course Hillary Clinton lost, and of course the hype over the latter’s predicted victory soured as and when the results of key swing states were announced, but let’s be honest here: comparing what transpired in the “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave” with our “Dharmishta Samajaya” (yes, I am being sarcastic here) would be akin to comparing apples with oranges.

I do believe, however, that certain significant points emerged from the election. Points that may well explain where we are heading and where we will stop, as a nation. This week’s column is about what we can take from the results, the constituencies, and the ideological predilections each candidate pandered to. Starting with this: how did the winner win?

Let’s get one thing clear. From Day One, the candidates were already decided on. It was not the most radical nominee who emerged from the Democrats. Bernie Sanders, at every step of the way, was less hindered by his Republican counterparts than by his own party’s other candidate. He was rubbished, dubbed a mean old man, and portrayed as everything the party was supposed to stand for but did not: social democratic, reformist, dangerous. In the end, it was left to that most astute of satirists, Jon Stewart, to sum up the case against Sanders: “We’ve all become so accustomed to stage-managed, focus-group-driven candidates that authenticity comes across as lunacy.”

And that authenticity cost not just his candidature, but Hillary Clinton’s as well. I don’t wish to delve into statistics, but the fact of the matter is that Clinton won by slender margins and lost by not-so slender margins in key states. Given that Trump won the same proportion of white people that Mitt Romney did (against Barack Obama) in 2012, the only reasonable explanation of Clinton’s loss was this: she did not court as many minority votes (about 88%, according to the Pew Centre) as she should have to soar into the kind of victory Obama did eight years ago (with about 91%).

That, coupled with the fact that of the 11 most crucial swing states (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin) seven went to Trump, probably renders the racism story (I’ll get to this later) about the man at best, a myth. Let’s not forget, after all, that Clinton suffered her biggest losses in places where Obama was strongest with white voters. As with 2008 hence, there was a transition, a pool of undecided millennials who were (as Sanders eloquently pointed out in a Facebook post a day after the election) sick of the Establishment, sick of rhetoric, sick of the media, and wanted action.

Ben Domenech, writing in The Federalist, poses an interesting question: who really deserves the credit for Trump’s victory? He answers it at once: Obama and the media. I’ll get to the media shortly, but as for Obama, suffice it to say that his over-optimistic message for continuity was as blind as it was going to get. It’s difficult to imagine how a person as universally loved could be so deprecated in his own country, but much of that has to do with the Big Government mentality that Republicans tried to reflect with his every word and deed. Put simply, he tried to save the privilege-deprived when he gave the impression of burdening others who were as deprived of privilege, yet ignored. It was that ignored crowd who voted against continuity.

Sanders and Trump were the only two authentic, no-frills candidates in the race. Sanders in particular, with the integrity typical of a man as old, veteran, and controversial as him, reaped so much appeal among young voters that it didn’t surprise anyone when those same young voters, instead of going for Clinton, either chose third party candidates or didn’t vote at all. As the Pew Centre analysis puts it succinctly, not many young people were out there voting for her.

And in the final analysis, this probably had to do with how the lady was perceived. She was branded, vilified, and insulted. She had a past. It was Gloria Steinem, that renowned and still-at-it feminist crusader, who once famously said of the median woman, “Either she’s a feminist or a masochist”, and went on to class female Republican Party supporters as the latter, but the truth was that given Clinton’s foreign policy record (particularly when it came to the Middle East), she was regarded as much a Republican as those touted as sexists and misogynists on the other side. She had imbibed Sanders’ vision for a more equal society, but had repudiated its core message.

Enough with this though. Donald Trump won. Will he make this world any better? I don’t think so. To be fair by him, I don’t think he’ll make it any worse either. People and individuals are so alluring that voters forget there are things other than personality which drive a government. Barack Obama was loved, yes, but despite that he had to implement some of his most controversial policies using Executive Orders (thanks to Republican opposition).

To be as simple as possible, a vote for Trump was a vote for change, a vote for concrete action over lofty ideals. It proved that liberals were stuck in complacency, were too ready to compromise in the face of disaster, and were raising too much hope. They were deciding for the undecided, which the undecided (predominantly white, male, and Christian) did not like.

So what have we as a country learnt? For one thing, the underdog can triumph. Ann Coulter, that rightwing political commentator, put it best when Trump won his candidature last May: “A guy just won the Republican nomination for president by spending no money, hiring no pollsters, running virtually no TV ads, and just saying what he truly believed no matter how many times people told him he couldn't say that.”

There were a great many institutions telling us that he could not win, from the so-called liberal media to the BBC. Even rightwing commentators like Glenn Beck were badmouthing him, caught in the unenviable dilemma of either liking the Obamas (whom he’d trashed for the last eight years) or voting for the Republican candidate who happened to be the same man he was now trashing. Trump was criticised as unrefined, uncouth, and appealing to what Harper Lee once called “white trash”: coarse, vulgar, White, otherwise known as bumpkins. Yes, like the baiyas of this country.

And in the end, those baiyas won. They were forgotten, as Trump constantly reminded them, and they weren’t necessarily aligned with the conventional Republicans. They morphed from the Tea Party Movement (in 2009) into a class of their own: distrustful of the Establishment (whether from the Left or the Right), concerned with developing their country from a neo-Mercantilist standpoint (which explains Trump’s promise to create more jobs without “importing” them for cheap). They were ignored by a media that perpetuated a culture of political correctness, which in itself wasn’t bad if it wasn’t taken as an excuse (as it covertly was here) to ignore the nationalists, who as I pointed out in a previous column win whether you want them or not.

What transpired last week was hence an outcry against liberal elitism: the kind that ignored nationalist rhetoric, fears of outside invasion, and a sense of losing one’s communal identity. These are genuinely felt fears and threats, and in the long run they can transform into a substantial chunk of the country’s electorate if they are not addressed. At the end of the day, such elitism can be taken as arrogance, which probably explains the anger the bumpkins displayed against an article written by Garrison Keillor in the Washington Post, where he point-blank dismissed them with the following (unnecessary) point: “The future is scary. Let the uneducated have their day.”

When elitism is repudiated by people who have been shut off for long, the consequences can be disastrous when those people win at the ballot. Majority aspirations are based on self-perpetuating myths which may or may not be ridiculous, but if they are rubbished, they will be transformed into political slogans for the underdog. That underdog emerged in Sri Lanka as well, in 1989 and in 2005, from both the main political parties here and without the support of their own colleagues. Donald Trump too, without a clear endorsement from the likes of Paul Ryan (who masterminded the Tea Party Movement) soared to victory. All bets are that he will cast aside those who harboured doubts about him from his own party and take in those he takes to, though all that’s conjecture for now.

It was probably telling that the populists in Sri Lanka were cheering the man. One of them posted on Facebook, “This election showed the true power of the silent, anonymous powerbase of people in the USA,” no doubt spurred on by their distrust of Democrats, especially Clinton (who, thanks to all those leaked emails from her private server, was considered as a supporter of the LTTE), but also by their inclination towards a man who spoke his mind, baited his voters with rabble rousing rhetoric, and swept aside the conventional wisdom in favour of the national interest.

So who won? Xenophobes, sexists, and homophobes. That is a problem. Who lost? The warmongers, the subsidisers of capital, and the Establishment. The former are hawks on domestic policy and (supposedly) doves on foreign policy, while the latter (the Clintons especially, given their past) were hawks on foreign policy and doves on domestic policy. It’s difficult to point out who will be regretted more. Personally speaking, the choice between the devil and the deep blue sea would have been easier for me. And personally speaking, I don't think we should care.

We should care, however, about the lessons we can learn. America brought out the biggest upset in its electoral history last week. The vilified man won, the championed woman did not. Some would exclaim: “Misogyny!” Perhaps. But the truth is, despite the caricature and the parody, despite the comic sketches, and despite the vilification, the alleged misogynist got through anyway. If he becomes dangerous (and I don’t cut any slack for him if he does), who are we to blame? Not the bumpkins, but those who ignored them for eight years.

Bottom line: nationalism wins. If you bottle it up, you’ll make things a whole lot worse. Just like that.

Written for: Ceylon Today, November 15 2016