Monday, October 3, 2016

A new America faces a new cultural revolution; Trump reflects world's shift to intolerance

Frankly speaking, the choice before American voters in this presidential election is depressing to say the least. Neither candidate has the ennobling, inspirational dimension that made Barack Obama's entry splendorous, and John Kennedy's before him. The Clinton name is, to put it mildly, controversial; if Bill earned the nickname "Slick Willie," the commonly used adjectives for Hillary are "mean" and "phony" and "programmed". Donald Trump of course is the complete outsider trying to become the insider. His crude style is matched only by his reputation for real estate business tricks and his white-racist image. That this is all that the United States has on offer is an indication perhaps that the American Century is finally reaching its sunset stage.

It would be a mistake, though, to miss the historical importance of Trump's emergence as a political phenomenon. The world was astonished that a property tycoon with zero political experience could become the Republican Party's presidential candidate. Republicans themselves were astonished -- and many of them ashamed. The establishment wing of the party tried to stop Trump. They finally reconciled themselves to his candidacy when the threat of dire consequences to their opposition combined with the surprising groundswell in favour of Trump.

That groundswell has been attributed to various factors, ranging from the rise of a new middleclass in America with new grievances/aspirations, to a worldwide shift towards rightwing dogmatism and attendant intolerance. Before these new developments the system was "orderly". Both conservatives such as Ronald Reagan and liberals such as John Kennedy could count upon a citizenry that was generally satisfied with their lives. The middleclass outnumbered the upper and lower classes combined and the economy was healthy enough to ensure a reasonable level of prosperity. America's status as a world power and a refuge of the oppressed came as a bonus.

Perceptions are different now. A Pew research study (December 2015) showed that the middleclass was no longer the majority in America. Its share in income had also gone down steadily during the past four-plus years. Simultaneously, no doubt urged by loss of jobs and the general fall in economic standards, the middleclass also started losing faith in the entrenched political system manned by scheming politicians, lobbyists, financiers and big-business cartels.

The moment was right for the middleclass to reject popular shibboleths about America's role in the world and start asking about America's responsibility to Americans. Trump was made for such a moment. The issues he raised resonated with growing numbers of disgruntled Americans. Why spend Americans' money on foreign aid? Why allow outsiders come and take jobs away from Americans? Why spend so heavily on military operations abroad when the result is ISIS?

When Trump raised such questions with his trademark flamboyance and loudness, the multitudes gravitated to him. His war cry, "Make America Great Again", was just what they wanted to hear. When he attacked Hispanics, Blacks, and alien entities like "the Chinese", white Americans were thrilled. His comments on immigrants and minorities and women were ultraconservative, retrograde and belligerent, but they were music to the ears of an enlarged audience of Americans disgusted with the conditions imposed on them by the politicians-business establishment. Trump saw his popularity rising.

But many Americans also found him vulgar, foul and opposed to the standards of decency they considered not only important but also American. The New York Times and the Washington Post led the powerful media segment that "endorsed" Hillary Clinton and published strongly-worded denunciations of the values Trump propagated. What has emerged is a divided America -- divided, not between liberals and conservatives as has been the case till now, but between liberals and nationalists of the dogmatic kind.

America may simply be reflecting a trend that has been evolving around the world. Sluggish economy and the convulsions created by the refugee influx from war-torn Syria have seen ultra-right parties gaining ground across Europe. The anti-immigrant, anti-European Union, protectionist National Front in France, the far-right Alternative for Germany party, the anti-immigrant Freedom Party in Austria, Hungarian, Polish rightwingers are all beneficiaries of the world's swing to illiberal doctrines.

That is why the Hillary-Trump fight will be a historically significant event and its eventual consequences unpredictable. The first TV debate between them saw Hillary winning comfortably. But it will be foolish to ignore the fact that Trump has risen this high despite being a "tax-evader" as Hillary charged, and despite calling women "slogs" and "dogs" and "pigs". America faces a cultural revolution and a political convulsion at once.