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Votes against Trump Have Consolidated

Amit Sengupta (deadlineamit@gmail.com) is a journalist and an academic, currently a fellow at the Newhouse Center for the Humanities, Wellesley College, Boston, Massachusetts, US.

Praveen K Chaudhry (praveen_chaudhry@fitnyc.edu) is professor of political science at the State University of New York/FIT; he has been a visiting fellow at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

While Hillary Clinton’s campaign has received a boost in recent weeks because of the crass demeanour of her political opponent, there are stark similarities between the rise of Donald Trump in the US and Narendra Modi in India.

The fall has arrived and the leaves of the trees are turning into a kaleidoscope of pulsating colours, like an impressionist painting. Chelsea Clinton came to the beautiful forest campus of Wellesley College on the shore of an undulating lake on 13 October and spontaneously formed an emotional bond. Her mother is the famous alumni from this prestigious college. She said that her mother is campaigning in California, but is “really jealous that I could make it to Wellesley and she could not.”

Amidst an adulatory audience of Hillary Clinton supporters, college students and faculty, she started with a casual remark about the “locker room” controversy but stayed sharply away from any mention of Donald Trump. She seems to be following the famous quip of Michelle Obama, which is often cited by her mother in her rallies: “When they go low, we go high.”

Instead, she focused on climate change, racism, Islamophobia, attacks on immigrants, minimum wages, higher education, women’s empowerment and childcare. The poignant moment of the rally was marked for all to see—a student stood up and said, her voice choking with emotion, that her origins are from the Czech Republic which has been through terrible times, that her father and mother started from scratch through very difficult times and that they worked really hard so that she could come study here. However, these days, every day, she said, she feels fearful of her daily life and her future, considering the bad faith injected in the social and political atmosphere. She was obviously referring to the wave of anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric unleashed by the Trump campaign and the atmosphere of mistrust injected into the social fabric of the US.

Chelsea could sense the charged-up moment’s revelation immediately, and so did the teachers and students of Wellesley College. The student is right. America is witnessing the depressing phenomena of the xenophobic, the perverse and the impossible becoming a mainstream narrative. Never before has a presidential nominee been exposed and targeted for not only lacking in temperament, demeanour and dignity, but also because of his polarising political agenda and brazenly crude male chauvinistic narrative and posturing. In a presidential discourse and a general media debate that have sunk to the lowest common denominator in terms of locker room predators, sexual assaults and sexual abuse, use of perverse and sexist language, and an avalanche of vile allegations emerging from scores of women against an aggressive and self-styled “alpha male” named Donald Trump, Chelsea Clinton’s positive and non-partisan agenda clicked with the plural audience.

The shadow of a relentlessly unrepentant and uncouth Trump was not lurking on the stage at the college. Instead, she represented a newer, charged up and positive Hillary, with her ratings suddenly shooting up all over the country, including in the swing states, especially among the women in the suburbs and the cities, the educated classes, and even among the women within the white working class—which has steadfastly backed Trump for reasons particularly peculiar to the American political economy. Even Fox News, which is transparently loyal to Trump, has done a poll whereby Hillary is far ahead of Trump in terms of ratings.

The similarities between the rise of Narendra Modi in India in 2014 and the Donald Trump phenomena in contemporary America are often rather stark. The South Asian community here is aware of the comparison; it became all the more stark after war-hysteria gripped the India–Pakistan political landscape. Indeed, white supremacists have been backing Trump precisely because the tycoon has been polarising American civil society by creating mass phobia of immigrants and refugees taking over jobs, of jobs running away from the country, of branding Mexicans as “rapists”, using Islamophobia and organised racism as “trump cards”, with the scary prophecy of “stop and frisk” on the streets and stricter “law and order” implying an authoritarian state with a propensity to curb civil liberties.

Richard Spencer, a writer and an activist, whose Montana-based non-profit organisation is dedicated to “the heritage, identity and future of people of European descent” in the US, in a New York Times report on 13 July stated:

The discussion that white Americans never want to have is this question of identity—who are we? He (Trump) is bringing identity politics for white people into the public sphere in a way no one has.

Even a section of Trump supporters, or Hillary-haters, feels that while their income might rise under Trump, individual rights might be taken away. It is thereby ironical that the white working class has chosen to back a real estate tycoon who has refused to disclose his tax returns and who does not really represent the economic and social interests of the low-income groups, in a country where class inequity is sharp, widespread and transparent. So much so, even while public schooling under the state is free, higher education is exorbitantly expensive, and by and large inaccessible to the low middle and working class population.

Sanders and the Margins

It is all the more ironical that “socialist” Bernie Sanders, whose challenge to Clinton in the primaries was formidable, has not been able to draw the support of this “natural constituency” in the margins of American society. However, the underlying optimism in the Sanders campaign was that most campuses and students became his ardent supporters, thereby setting a political agenda which was anti-war, anti-racism and against Islamophobia and xenophobia. The campaign sought an inclusive and culturally pluralist society, class and social equality, and a political economy which would stop pandering to the rich and privileged.

With Clinton pitched as a transparent favourite of Wall Street hawks, and she being squarely blamed for the terrible consequences of the war in Syria and Yemen, including the “murder” of Muammar Gaddafi by a mob on the streets of Libya, this section of the young, across all colours and identities, were squarely suspicious of her. That she might continue with her policies in West Asia and South Asia is a genuine danger and possibility. The destruction of thousands of emails and the disclosure by WikiLeaks of she making millions with her Wall Street speeches as a possible quid pro quo has only strengthened the belief among the young that she is a “compulsive liar” and one-dimensional in her unbridled ambitions, like her husband, Bill Clinton.

One of the great difficulties of the Clinton campaign was to mobilise this huge section of young voters to vote for her, and despite the appeal by Sanders, the young and the liberal-progressives of the Occupy Wall Street movement were not able to make up their mind. Some of them were clearly inclined towards Jill Stein of the Green Party whose support has meandered between 3% and 6%. For instance, certain academics in Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are of the opinion that since Massachusetts will certainly vote for Hillary, they can safely vote for Jill Stein with a clear conscience. Others are of the opinion that if there is a remote chance of Trump making it in a tight contest, they will bury their differences and vote Hillary.

This “national dilemma” seems to have been partially resolved, especially among women and the educated, after Trump’s crass and sexist locker-room disclosures. There is a wave of disgust sweeping across America on the foul language of possible sexual assault emanating from a presidential candidate that can be socially regressive and dangerous in terms of “family values”. Earlier, the manner in which he called a former Miss Universe “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping,” among other forms of “fat-shaming,” the derogatory language used against women on their “looks” and so on, the daily allegations of “groping, kissing, invasion of physical privacy,” and even the boast of entering a dressing room full of beauty pageant participants had greatly upset not only ordinary folks, but it has triggered a wave of unrest among Republican leaders as well, barring the likes of Rudy Giuliani, the former Mayor of New York, who is being described as one of the last remaining cheerleaders of the Trump campaign. It is a contradiction of sorts that even heavyweights like John McCain, Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney, among other Republican leaders, who have been attacked and caricatured by Trump, did not decisively choose to withdraw support. It is only after the locker room tape controversy, did a string of Republican leaders come out openly against Trump, as if it was the last straw.

Indeed, that is the uncanny question: Was it the last straw?

Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times on 10 October:

As many people are pointing out, Republicans now trying to distance themselves from Donald Trump need to explain why The Tape was a breaking point, when so many previous incidents weren’t. On Saturday, explaining why he was withdrawing his endorsement, Senator John McCain cited ‘comments on prisoners of war, the Khan Gold Star family, Judge Curiel and earlier inappropriate comments about women’—and that leaves out Mexicans as rapists, calls for a Muslim ban, and much more. So, Senator McCain, what took you so long?

Among the liberal and progressive sections, the biggest fear is the legitimacy being given to a certain polarising discourse and ideas, which observers fear can become extremely dangerous and diabolical in the days to come. This discourse on racism and Islamophobia can become “legit” among certain sections, leading to an entrenched “political unconscious” in a country which prides itself on its immigrant essence and character, and how talent from across different cultures and nations has nourished the life-stream of its knowledge systems and political economy. “It’s not only the low-level discourse,” said an academic in MIT, Boston. “There is a tangible fear that the poison and hate politics can permeate the social consciousness, and even turn violent.”

A working woman in upper-crust Wellesley added:

I have always believed that Americans need to go out of their country and see other cultures and civilisations, which are great, diverse and vibrant. That will help open their minds and make them culturally plural. I am appalled at the manner Trump has lowered the language of the presidential discourse. The hate, racism and misogyny unleashed by his campaign and supporters are bound to seriously harm the social fabric of America. What will the world think of us?

Certainly, there are striking similarities between the rise of xenophobia and mob vigilantism in India, and the lurking shadows of similar phenomena in America. Observers here believe that once hate politics becomes legitimate among a certain section of society, it might lead to bad faith and unhappy consequences. Once used as a successfully polarising electoral card, however vile and vicious, it is almost certain to explode on the face sooner than later.

The bitter realism of the condition of the African–American community is being cited as a possible breaking point, if the racist discourse continues to dominate Republican supporters. Blacks have been at the receiving end of “prejudiced” law enforcement agencies in many parts of the US, which includes facing violence and long prison terms. Social scientists cite the disproportionately high number of Blacks and Hispanics, who are rotting in prisons for long periods. Blacks have been shot dead by the police, as in Charlotte, North Carolina, recently, triggering angry mass protests. “Black Lives Matter” has, therefore, become a strong countrywide movement representing the angst and anger of the African–American community. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. Individuals of colour have a disproportionate number of encounters with law enforcement, indicating that racial profiling continues to be a problem.

However, with both Michelle and Barack Obama’s ratings going to an all-time high, and with both of them attacking Trump directly in campaign speeches across the country, Hillary seems to have solidly consolidated her support base among women, the educated, the African–American community, the Latinos, Asians and immigrants. President Obama, in a scathing and protracted attack on Trump in Cleveland, Ohio on 14 October, not only raised the “birther” issue whereby Trump questioned Obama’s origin of birth, but also castigated him on his policies, his foul and sexist language, and his refusal to declare his tax returns. “He doesn’t have the temperament, knowledge or interest in acquiring knowledge or basic honesty a president needs to have, and that was before we heard him talk about women,” said Obama.

He cajoled the audience to register and vote, a pattern followed by him and Michelle in all their rallies, seeking the continuation of his incomplete legacy, including attempts to improve social justice and reduce inequity. In an earlier speech to the Black Caucus, Obama had literally said that though his name is not on the ballot, voters should vote for his legacy. In Cleveland, he said that voters must come out and vote, because this is a “vote for democracy”. He implied that democracy and secular pluralism are in danger with Trump in the running—a scenario with uncanny similarities with contemporary India.

With little time left to go for 8 November, voting day, America is walking a tight-rope, fingers-crossed. With Clinton’s ratings going up, and those reluctant to back her earlier meaning to come out and vote in protest against Trump’s misogynist posturing, especially women and university students—the Millennials—the situation might not be as bleak as it appears. The world is watching. Hope floats.

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