Trump phenomena

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S P Seth

The US election result, with Donald Trump as president-elect, has thrown up so many issues and problems that will continue to be debated in the time to come. Both at home in the US and abroad, there will be cause for alarm at the turn the country appears to be taking. Only eight years ago, in 2008, the US made history by electing an African-American president, creating new hope and excitement. It was to be a new beginning for America, seemingly turning its back on the cruel and tortuous history of slavery to create an inclusive society. At the time of Barack Obama’s election, I happened to be in a small, largely progressive, US university town. It was amazing to experience the jubilation that some academics felt at the result. Obama’s election validated that the country’ core was always decent and humane, as laid down in its constitution. Obama personified for many the beginning of a new era of hope across political, racial and any other divide. Obama certainly believed it strongly and sought to govern as an inclusive president. The country certainly needed a healing touch after the Bush’s period of endless military conflict in the Middle East and the global financial crisis that was sapping the confidence and morale of the world’s most powerful country. A number of important features have characterised American successes in the past. Firstly, the US emerged as the leader of the western world in the post-WWII period. This, not surprisingly, created an immense belief in American ‘exceptionalism’ and American ‘dream’. This also led to a sense of entitlement that the US was indeed a special country and its leadership of the ‘free world’ was a given. Furthermore, its value system of democracy and neo-liberalism was the model for the rest of the world. The US felt validated and reinforced it when it ‘won’ the Cold War. And it contributed to “irrational exuberance” in its economic policies of deregulation, leading to the marketing of shoddy products based on unsustainable debt that created the global financial crisis, still with us in so many ways.The working of the economy was based on the belief that ‘free’ markets were a self-correcting mechanism that directed resources to the sectors that needed it the most. The 2007-08 recession proved it wrong. Restructuring the ‘free’ market beast was difficult because it is so much a part of the system that has supported the edifice of neo-liberalism in all its manifestations. In other words, the US in particular, and the western economies, in general, are caught in a rapid of the fast-churning waters of economic ‘liberalism’, unable to be rescued. This is where the US found itself after the Reagan era when the financial system was awash with easy money and the illusion that the economy had nowhere to go but upward. That had created a financial crisis, denting this self-image that the US was on an upward trajectory forever.The impending crisis converged with and, indeed, in no small measure, was also caused by America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which cost the US about $2 trillion and continuing. Americans are not used to failure. This failure to complete the mission or to extricate from it with dignity over the last 15 years is a daily reminder that the US is no longer the power it used to be. The mantra of free trade and globalisation, against the de-industrialized hubs of mid-west, called the rust belt, makes those parts of the US look like a wasteland, with high rates of unemployment and resultant anger and sense of displacement.This is not to suggest that globalisation is responsible for all this. Globalisation and free trade had its positives and negatives, with the US gaining most from the digital revolution of the internet era, pioneered and expanded by the US giants like Google and others. Some of these giants are valued at more than the GDP of quite a good number of countries.

What has gone wrong is that the de-industrialization of the US has not gone hand in hand with the parallel development of new sectors of the economy like the alternative energy of renewables, and exploring new areas of economic growth where quantitative measurement, otherwise called productivity growth in material goods, is not the litmus test of economic health.
This obsessive belief in statistical measurement based on a basket of goods and its continuing growth, and automation replacing workers, is causing social and economic misery.

The increasing concentration of wealth among banking and investment sectors, digital giants, and elsewhere is creating income inequalities. These inequalities are brewing an insurgent situation; challenging and blaming the establishment and elites, virtually calling for the overthrow of the system. There is a sense that anything that replaces the status quo, personified by Hillary Clinton and the likes, can only be an improvement. This is where the Trump phenomena and Brexit have become the alternative and populist voice of change. The level of anxiety caused by ‘threats’ from immigration, Muslims, multiculturalism, ISIS and terrorism, and the perceived undermining of the privileged position of hegemony exercised by white class in the US and other European societies, built up an image of siege among many sections of these societies.

The demographic change in the US is illustrative of this. Its white population is likely to lose its majority in the next few decades, thus losing its privileged position to non-whites — blacks, Latinos, Asians and others. In other words, America’s white population, who have put Trump into power, are in a hurry to reverse this process by such measures as restricting immigration, sending back ‘illegals’, building walls, and above all, changing the rules to make voting by minorities increasingly complicated and difficult. Some of the Republican states have already been moving in this direction. The US is now polarised, with half the country turning against the other half. How will this work out under Trump as president is anybody’s guess? But if one goes by all the incendiary remarks that he made on a whole lot of issues during the election, the picture is quite bleak. What one can say with some certainty is that it will be a bumpy ride ahead, if not worse.