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Trump Is Gone but Trumpism Is Rampant: The Globalisation of Populism

The new contemporary term for what Europe experienced a century ago holds sway over a significant population in the US, but also in many countries around the world.
President Trump speaks at a campaign kick off rally at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. Photo: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

One must concede that the institutional strengths of the American democratic system have for now got the better of an attempted right-wing coup. Or, if you like, ‘Coup Klux Klan’ as the Times of India put the matter imaginatively.

Those institutional strengths, in passing, may not include how America’s law-enforcement personnel often treat black American citizens – much like how our own police treat some of our marginalised communities. Although it also remains a fact that a George Floyd occurrence could cause a veritable revolution to happen that India, by and large, is still a stranger to.

Yet, ‘banana republics’ of the world may be for now excused if they say ‘physician, heal thyself.’

Historians fielded by media channels like CNN have of course pointed out how the insurrection of  January 6 issues from a long history of racial divide, ever since male black Americans were accorded the right to vote in 1873. Just to recall, eleven Southern states had refused to accept Abraham Lincoln as president and seceded from the Union, leading to the civil war.

Indeed, in 1878, the elections in North Carolina were actually overturned by force by the Klan and other white supremacists, and the whole Reconstruction era was characterised by dour supremacist strategists to deny franchise to black Americans through diverse ploys (including abominable episodes of lynchings), of ‘voter suppression’.

In that context, Vladimir Putin may be excused for having remarked on a flawed American electoral system, and sundry commentators too for having pointed fingers at how the American state has often supported insurrections of the January 6 kind, recent examples being Venezuela and Bolivia. Not to forget the infamous support given to the mafia-style right-wing revolt led in 1991 by a thug-like Boris Yeltsin in Russia.

Protesters wave American and Confederate flags before they stormed the US Capitol Building in Washington, US January 6, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo

Trumpism retains a vast constituency

It should not be forgotten that some 75 million Americans voted for Donald Trump. He may in the bitter and violent end have been duly ousted, but Trumpism continues to retain a vast constituency.

Even as Trumpism (if you like, a new contemporary term for what Europe experienced a century ago) afflicts at least half a dozen modern states worldwide today.

So, how do we understand Trumpism of our time?

First, in economic terms, I am with those analysts who see the rise of Trumpism as, foremost, an  underling push-back worldwide against the economic thesis of ‘globalisation.’

If the globalising slogan of 1848 – ‘workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains’ – had sought to reorient the productive forces and material yield of the world to meet the just requirements and deserts of the labouring who were the producers of  wealth, the second call to globalisation that was unleashed with the Washington Consensus of 1990 could have been interpreted to read ‘exploiters of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your profits.’

The unprecedented flow of moneys across national boundaries (hot money) that followed that consensus among the endowed (monopolised by the G-7 coterie) had the direct consequence of relegating the ‘real’ economies of the world to subsidiary status. The fall-out the ‘reform’ came to be an unconscionable centralisation of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, chiefly through the quick – money turn-overs in stock markets, to the exclusion of such long-term investments as lift the living standards of the vast masses. (Not that Trumpist populism was to carry any bonanzas for those on whose behalf the existing economic elite were to be challenged.)

Also Read: The Trump Coup D’Etat and Insurrection Was Long in the Making, And Will Continue

The new global economic elite came to ground its clout in a corresponding cultural supremacy that was perceived to cause a top-down schism between a new global Ivy League and a new colonised hoi polloi. This new clout of international finance capital began to be read back into a new politics of identities on either side of the phenomenon.

This was clearly not a phenomenon that a global working class, shattered by a rampant digital technology, could combat anymore with success through classic forms of resistance.

Failing any global mobilisation from the Left, a familiar old and parochial nationalism of the deprived underdog stepped in from the Right to combat the global ‘reform’ that was seen to cannibalise the conservative Right itself.

Those who understood this also understood that the dominant systemic arrangements of the world, including among states that were designated ‘democracies,’ had come to be closed archives of power that catered almost exclusively to the marauding needs of global capital.

Trumpism thus came to be a sort of revolt from below, but one that could no longer be organised on accepted principles of constitutionalism.

Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters/Rick Wilking

The task required a new paradigm of leadership and a new paradigm of mass organisation.

The new leader of this epistemic shift had to designate for himself a justification and a status that drew upon sources of legitimation that would conflict with what democratic rule books prescribed.

That, in turn, required a reorientation of identities, both on behalf of those who came to lead the push-back and those who were to be made to follow the lead.

A new paradigm

Elections now were to be won by first creating an extra-constitutional paradigm of selective citizen entitlement grounded in an appeal to the victimhood of identities, be it of race, religion, region, or linguistic orientation.

Appeal came to be made to new cultural majorities to the effect that elite minorities had them in thrall, and that endowed ‘enemies’ were everywhere who dictated the rights and wrongs of citizenship and of  ‘values’ that must inform ‘legitimate’ power-structures.

In America, for example, Evangelist white Christians, suburban white housewives, non-collegiate white males who belonged to a depressed blue working class came to be organised in a new political contract – as populations who had been ripped off by a politics of multi-racialism that ‘appeased’ the black American and the immigrant ‘outsider.’

This new indigenism, of course, shut its ears to such historical facts as, for example, that only the ‘native  American Indians’ could justly claim the status of originary inhabitants of the land, and that American capitalism was largely a yield first of black slave labour before any other forces of production could come into play.

Not surprisingly, the new leader in Washington understood that he had to recast himself as Washington’s enemy. And, in order to overcome the systemic verities of Washington, he had to recast himself as a new Loius XIV and declare, in effect, “L’est c’est moi (I am the state).”

The construction of a new cultist leadership enjoined that the state be subsumed into the person of the leader.

And the new cultist leader had a new political agenda to forge and propagate:

The truth of all things was now to be seen as identical with the pronouncements of the leader; entrenched channels of information, most of all the ‘liberal’ media, was to be reconstructed as purveyor of ‘fake news’; ‘liberal’ elites were to be rubbished as ‘enemies’ of the extra-parliamentary ‘majority’ which actually constituted the ‘nation’; those who manned the institutions of the ‘pseudo’ and ‘complicit’ democratic state were to understand that their legitimation could come only from their loyalty to the cult-leader; new loyalists were to be put in places of authority; a code of dog-whistles was to be  assiduously framed – one to which the new ‘majority’ would respond on the instant, requiring neither deliberation nor justification, nor systemic  sanction; bands of vigilantes (who could call themselves ‘Proud Boys’) were to be cultivated who could be trusted to use voluntary muscle as and when required to quell the voices of opposition; sections of the population were to be declared interlopers without locus in the republic. Laws and pardons were to apply selectively to different segments of the populace, some to be hounded eternally, others never to be touched (ring a bell?).

Also Read: Inside Donald Trump and Barr’s Last-Minute Killing Spree

Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the American Presidential election of 2020 was thus propagated not as a repudiation of the democratic process but of an elite conspiracy to rob the ‘real’ people of their ownership of the nation. The slogan that Trump gave as the culminating dog-whistle – ‘let us take back our country’ – was thus not to be seen as a seditious calling, but an invocation to a return to a lost authenticity of possession, one notified by the Confederate flags that were in evidence at the site of the violent insurrection on Capitol Hill. That an Indian tricolor was also carried by some insurrectionists, of course, carries food for thought for Indian citizens who may be as anxious about the new turn of events  here as there. One is left to imagine that such a display may, after all, have issued from the slogan ‘Ab ki baar Trump sarkar’.

A screengrab from the viral video. Photo: Twitter@aletweetsnews

The siege of that symbol of the American republic was thus the final putsch by a violent rogue right-wing against a pusillanimous progenitor – constitutional right-wing, as much as against a democratic elite which was perceived to have usurped America from those who had the first right to it – a sort of a renewed burning of the Reichstag.

One need not here belabour the quite obvious parallels of this package and agenda in other states of the world today, but no close watcher may have any difficulty in deciphering the contents and the modus operandi.

Post the assault on the Capitol, Narendra Modi has cryptically remarked that ‘unlawful  protests’ cannot subvert democracy, but one does not quite know whether, for example, the assault on the Babri mosque in 1992 would in his view qualify as an ‘unlawful protest’, or what his view might be of the uninhibited  vigilante assaults that have interminably accompanied his tenure in the highest office, that – as in the case of the Capitol event – took the life of a law-enforcement officer in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

What seems certain is that lawful farmers’ protests of the kind now in evidence may be all too necessary to shore up a democratic order whose moral and procedural verities have come to be massively degraded.

As stated at the outset, the mechanics of the constitutional right-wing stood fast in the end. Trump’s more institutional and legal attempts at overturning the people’s verdict were rebuffed in court after court by judges, some of whom he had appointed in the belief that they would stand him in good stead in his hour of need. Nor did America’s reputed media outlets, barring of course their own ‘godi media’ (captive media) like the Fox News channel outlets, succumb, or electoral officials, including officials of his own Republican Party give in to his shamelessly proferred instructions to falsify the count. Also to note, that despite consequences to their own electoral prospects in the coming years, unflinchingly critical, even damning voices have come to be raised by scions of Trump’s own party against his incitement to violence and insurrection.

It is sadly not at all certain that in the other parts of the world where Trumpism reigns, such a concerted push-back from the systemic branches of the state may be forthcoming, were matters to come to a parallel pass.

Also Read: The Past, Present and Future of India’s Capitol Hill Moment

Trump’s exit from office nonetheless gives little hope that this will spell the end of Trumpism. Our analysis suggests that its ideological roots and resentments are far too deep, and no business-as-usual politics from the centre-right, however more decently democratic, may be sufficient guarantee against its return. This is true as much of Trumpism in other countries as of Trumpism in the now not-so United States of America.

If the distorted assumptions of what used to be the tenets of liberal democracy are to be salvaged from their innate vulnerability to right-wing lurches – first of a constitutional/democratic sort, and then of the Trumpian variety, the answer can come only from an open-eyed critique of those fancy assumptions from a reasoned politics of the centre-left, and mass movements whose genius, as of the current farmer’s movement in India, sentiently rejects the enticements, and fake proclamations of right-wing false prophets.

But so great now is the usurpation of the tools and assets of the so-called democratic world in the hands of the right-wing that battling it from the Left is far more arduous a task than a David-Goliath paradigm.

The push-back against Trumpism everywhere must come from a new, all-encompassing covenant of civic citizenship which can successfully expose the false constructions of a presumed ‘real nationalism’  and, through relentless analysis, propagation, and mass mobilisation show it up for what it is – a new fascism of our time.

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