Donald Trump’s election win has been illusion shattering. In a swoop, Trump’s win has bayonetted the credibility of America’s powerful East Coast media, pollsters, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party and the idea of globalisation. Moreover, it has scarred the psyche of liberal Democratic voters known for deriding Republicans: Democrats who underrated Trump’s appeal with the recession-battered white underclass. Trump’s triumph comes in the wake of Brexit, the continuing crises within the European Union and an anti-migrant ripple in the first world. The win has sparked soul-searching on the crisis of ‘liberalism’ in America. If liberal America has seen such an anti-liberal poll result it begs the question: How liberal have the liberals been to have come to such a pass? And does the liberal quagmire in America, hold any value for Indian liberals?
Post-election, liberal American media outlets of record acknowledged their shared mea culpa. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker and major television stations admitted they underestimated Rust Belt ire and antipathy towards Hillary Clinton. There is stocktaking on the sheer invasiveness of the digital world and its click-bait cons. During the campaign, as Trump plummeted to newer depths of indecorum and vainglory, America’s liberal media spent so much effort railing against him and boosting Hillary Clinton, that it missed marking the drumbeat of his supporters. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore was one of the few liberal public intellectuals to see Trump tapping into white blue-collar fury. He was one in a minority who understood that decent white folks were backing an indecent Trump only to beat Clinton for the status quo business-as-usual politics she represented.
In Trump’s rise, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek saw a chance of breaking open and reconstructing the American political party system. Neither Zizek nor Moore, one a filmmaker the other a philosopher, found Trump less than nauseating. For Zizek, Trump’s elevation as the Republican nominee, the hold of the Clintons over the Democratic Party, the loss of Bernie Sanders, were sure-fire signals of system shutdown. (Days before the election, Moore explained on his Website why he thought Trump would win. A day after it he put out an ‘I-told-you-so’ statement with a list of items Democrats need to pursue to revive the party.) Zizek suggested a Trump victory opened the chance to crash the entire American political hierarchy as it stood: One, you had to hit rock-bottom to make substantive change happen; two, the Trump win finished off the Democratic and the Republican Party as we knew them. Along with it, the networks of power, the machinery that manufactured consent that kept American society in check, the unspoken ciphers of this edifice, would be demolished. In different ways, both Moore and Zizek spoke of breaking the hold of cabals and lobbies: The 1% that dominated American life. Trump’s win have validated that these fissures exist in American society. But Moore and Zizek have their critics in and out of America. Liberals have often called Moore an anti-American and Zizek a reactionary. The liberal reaction to valid criticism yet again displays the illiberal strain in American liberalism.
Something similar prevails in Indian public affairs. Indian liberals – a nebulous lot at the best of times – are hugely critical of Narendra Modi and arraign him of overseeing the Godhra riots of 2002. Yet they have also been enticed by the successful parading of Gujarat as a prototype to renovate India. The projection of this story-line is so pervasive that it is now a cliché. It makes one forget – notwithstanding the financial scandals under Manmohan Singh’s watch – that the United Progressive Alliance II government faced double incumbency ennui in 2014. The listlessness of Narendra Modi’s opponents in 2014 added as much to his victory, though the massive Lok Sabha verdict accounts for an explicit wave in his favour. A chunk of Modi backers consisted of Indian liberals who may liken liberalism to economic advancement. The urban, urbane, secular, liberal class of India that benefited under Congress and Congress-led satraps switched to Modi’s overtures of muscular leadership fused with growth. It is only in 2015 and 2016, with the rise of intolerance, the Rohith Vemula suicide and the Dalit agitations, the Jawaharlal Nehru University anti-national imbroglio, Modi’s yen for using the ordinance method for pushing through policy change and his absence in Parliament to address national issues (like de-monitisation), that has bestirred liberals now. Numerous dynamics make Modi an extremely popular leader still. But it is a matter of incomprehension for the liberals.
In their deconstructions of the poll, both Moore and Zizek tore into American liberalism. The inward turn of the hurting liberal has shown how removed they have been with the realities of common Americans. American liberalism now looks illegitimate since it has now been proven it was a camouflage for the elites. The mask is off. Like their American counterparts, Indian secularists and liberals, are unable to make sense of the exceeding popularity of a divisive figure like Modi. They forget that, the Clintons are not unlike the Nehru-Gandhis of the Democratic Party. They forget that the Democratic Party had a well-meaning and credible candidate in Bernie Sanders. They forget that the vote for Modi, not unlike the vote for Trump, has been a vote against the “system”, the lightning-rod of Clinton or the UPA. It befuddles them the vote for Modi and his contemporary popularity is an expression of subversion by caste Hindus (and others) who also constitute India’s middle- and lower-middle classes. Parsing the American election and subjecting liberalism to questions in an Indian milieu raises a basic query: Is Indian liberalism in complete disarray? Where is our liberal introspection?
In contrast, American liberals have been pushed to reflect on their disengagement with common non-urban Americans. At a time of such funk, Michael Moore and Bernie Sanders have enumerated concrete ways to rebuild the Democratic Party. Under Modi’s rule, India’s urban liberals have come a cropper. Liberalism in India is personified by an English-spouting clique, traipsing enclaves like Khan Market, India International Centre, South Delhi and the Capital’s foreign embassies. Ironically, the non-urban, Indian-language speaking liberal like Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar (all assassinated) embodies a ground-up liberalism, and is wedded to the soil of Indian life. Their work endeavours to liberalise thinking, critique, scholarship. They strive in the process to create an open society. They are outliers. The challenge in India is that liberalism isn’t an ongoing struggle or a mass movement. It is not construed as something discrete from the party in power at the centre or the state. The fact that we cannot fathom liberalism as an ethic that is fought for – forever – is one of our biggest challenges in becoming a free and equal society.
Rahul Jayaram teaches at Jindal School of Liberal Arts & Humanities.