U.S. elections

To friends in the U.S.

Print edition : December 09, 2016

A march in protest against President-elect Donald Trump in Seattle, Washington, on November 14. Photo: Jason Redmond/AFP

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel at a news conference on November 14. He said that the outcome of the presidential election would not impact Chicago’s commitment to serve as a sanctuary city for immigrants. Photo: Teresa Crawford/AP

We understand and empathise with you because in our own way we have been there. Do not be afraid: fear is what the newly powerful groups want to instil in you, but like all bullies, they retreat in the face of determined and unified opposition.

BELIEVE me, we understand what you are going through. We share your shock, horror and pain. Not just because we, like everyone else in the world, are so hugely affected by politics in the United States and by the nature of the U.S. leadership. Not just because we are now on completely uncharted terrain internationally. Not just because the cavalier and cynical approach to global warming that has been embraced by the next President of the U.S. has the capacity to destroy our planet. Not just because the geopolitical implications of the spoken and unspoken attitudes of the incoming U.S. regime—which clearly abhors any kind of multilateralism and seems most comfortable with tyrannical and repressive leaders in other countries—are likely to be devastating for progressive internationalism and for democratic movements everywhere. Not just because, as reality TV merges into reality and social media is taken over by ghastly and raucous forces, the huge inroads made by the export of cultural products of the U.S. create awful replicas of what is happening in your society in our own countries.

We understand and empathise with you also because, in our own way, we have been there. Two and a half years ago, something similar happened in India. So you can ask us what it is like: we can tell you, midway into the tenure of our current government, what to expect and what you should really watch out for.

As the shock of the U.S. election results settles in this year of unpleasant surprises, many international comparisons are being drawn. The most obvious analogy is with Brexit—down to the inability of elites, analysts and liberal media to see it coming. It is now beyond doubt that across the world people are reacting to the inequality, insecurity and social hollowing out brought about by neoliberal globalisation and its votaries. And they are reacting in angry, aggressive and exclusionary ways, blaming other victims of the same processes rather than the broader policies responsible for the crisis, and reinforcing the worst kinds of prejudices in that process.

But in fact, this has been happening for a while in several other parts of the world, often with similar electoral outcomes. In India, we faced a similar situation in May 2014, when Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to an absolute majority in Parliament, which had been expected by no one. Modi, like Trump, came to power on the promise of change, away from an establishment widely seen as corrupt, distant and out of touch with the masses and their problems. He also had to fight the old guard within his own party, which was already a party firmly on the right of the spectrum but still found him to be too extreme. He also promised economic growth that would deliver more jobs, but on a very vague platform. He too was a master of social media, using Twitter and Facebook to attract followers. Like Trump, he preyed on the insecurities of people, their dissatisfaction with the existing order that did not deliver. He also drew upon and appeared to justify chauvinistic and backward-looking attitudes, making them look respectable. He, too, was powered by a Far-Right and revanchist set of groups that became part of an increasingly aggressive political movement. He also campaigned in a very macho, divisive and even threatening manner, targeting immigrants and Muslims.

Like many of you, some of us in India were also in a state of denial until the very last moments of the election, refusing to believe or accept that our fellow citizens would vote to power a person who exploited people’s insecurities to increase hate and divisions in society. So we know what it is like to wake up with that fearful combination of despair and dread, unsure of what the future brings but sensing that it is going to be bad. Despite all the manifest differences between the U.S. and India, we can provide you with some insights into what may be ahead.

Unexpected U-turns

First, expect to watch in bemusement as leaders from across the world, as well as other public figures and commentators, do a quick about-turn from their earlier positions and discover the many virtues of Trump. All past sins and transgressions will be forgotten or ignored as the most unexpected leaders drop their opposition or criticism. We still have a clear memory of how quickly President Obama moved to discover a friend and kindred spirit in Prime Minister Modi; no doubt Modi, along with most other world leaders, will also find much to praise and admire in Trump. Indeed, we can already hear some of the paeans of praise to his energy, his dynamism, his transformative zeal, his ability to connect with people —because we have heard all this about our own Prime Minister from Obama and other leaders.

Expect also that the world will forgive—or at least not bother too much about—various transgressions of democracy and trampling of human rights inside your country, as long as external relations (and particularly business relations) work to their favour. At least from global leaders and foreign governments, expect very little solidarity with those inside the U.S. who will be harmed or suppressed or victimised by the policies of the new administration in unfair and unjust ways.

Do not be too surprised when, inside your country, all sorts of people from unlikely quarters agree to work with the new administration and even start jockeying for power and position within it. Do not be disappointed when they and others simply ignore evidence of unpleasant things going on and focus instead on “looking on the bright side” of what positive changes can be achieved.

Attacks on institutions

Prepare for a histrionic government, one that can master the art of symbolic actions without real content and use various forms of media to suggest that it is doing all kinds of great things even when the opposite is true. Expect a new apogee in doublespeak, which so confuses the public that they celebrate measures that contribute to their own impoverishment. Anticipate a weird new personality cult that will be developed around this unexpected leader, fuelled by both the aggressive use of social media and the caving in of the mainstream media.

Expect a government that will be unconstrained by the fact that only a minority of voters in the country voted for Trump. (In India, less than one-third of the electorate voted for the BJP; they still ended up with an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha because of the electoral system.) Instead, be ready for a confident all-out attack on various institutions: by replacing their heads with those seen to be more amenable, by undermining others and attacking their legitimacy, and by distorting their purposes and methods of functioning. In your case, Trump and the Republicans are entitled to choose judges of the Supreme Court; in our case, Modi and his party have simply delayed the official ratification of judges nominated by the judiciary until they can force in more of their own sympathisers.

Next, expect growing controls on the media in direct and indirect ways. Do not be surprised when major mainstream media outlets become more prone to self-censorship and are unwilling to give too much time and space to dissenting views or perspectives, and eventually reduce news coverage of many developments that may be awkward for the administration. Understand that smaller independent media will face both financial and physical attacks. Be ready to deal with various kinds of harassment and intimidation of anyone with different opinions from those now emboldened by their new proximity to power, ranging from Internet and social media trolling to actual physical threats. Expect those in charge of controlling such behaviour to be quietly indulgent of it and express only subtle and tangential disapproval in public.

Disdain for human rights

Expect a focus on human rights to become passe, something no longer espoused openly by people who matter and met with bored disinterest and even disdain by officialdom. Expect active suppression of all kinds of dissent, including by starving civil society groups of funds, as well as by embroiling them in expensive and time-consuming responses to legal and official action against them. Prepare to deal with a slew of offensive actions against civil society activists and human rights campaigners. Expect a clampdown on those who fight for the rights and justice of marginalised people, and prepare to watch as they—and you—are demonised by a hostile media. Especially be aware that “nationalism” and “patriotism” are going to become the favoured sticks with which to beat any opposition and that the fight against terrorism, which will be suspected to lurk in every corner, will be used to justify major attacks on democratic practice as you have known it.

But do not expect any controls or constraints at all on the right-wing crazies who will be emboldened by the new dispensation. Instead, expect to have to deal with the dogs let loose on the ground yourself, in the form of gender-based, racist, ethnic, religious, political and other hate crimes, as well as threats and violence faced by women, minorities, immigrants and other groups whom it will be all right to discriminate against once more.

Be prepared for a sharp increase in anti-intellectualism and much more vitriol in public discourse, not necessarily in the top echelons of government that will suddenly appear to be more civilised than before, but in society in general. Brace yourself for a real coarsening of language, of expressions of prejudice and usages that were earlier considered to be unacceptable becoming more mainstream and openly used. Realise that facts and reasoned arguments will give way to a cacophony that breeds unthinking and irrational hysteria.

Expect unwelcome changes in the way that justice is administered and delivered, with police and security forces being encouraged to be more openly aggressive and unafraid of undemocratic behaviour in the name of “law and order” and “national security”, and courts becoming less sympathetic to their victims. Be aware that the ultimate leader, your new President, is likely to follow Modi’s example in maintaining a studied public silence on such matters (despite excessive garrulity in general) or at best to mouth a few general prepared platitudes after much delay.

But despite all this negativity, know that there will also be a remarkable persistence of democratic and progressive tendencies within your society, examples of extraordinary courage and resilience on the part of individuals and groups. Do not be afraid: fear is what the newly powerful groups want to instil in you, but like all bullies, they retreat in the face of determined and unified opposition.

Bear in mind that their bluster gets louder as their fragility increases. And remind yourself—as we do every day—that this, too, shall pass.

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