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Rightward lurch

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on January 20, 2018
Divide and rule?: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Divide and rule?: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.   -  Reuters

Sukumar Muralidharan

Sukumar Muralidharan

The polarisation of US politics is becoming increasingly apparent, at a time when income disparities are at its historical worst

Philip Roth’s counter-historical novel, The Plot Against America, opens in 1940 with aviation hero Charles Lindbergh fighting on an isolationist platform and defeating incumbent US President Franklin Roosevelt. A peace treaty with Nazi Germany follows and Hitler’s race theories are made official US doctrine, plunging Jews and other insufficiently American ethnicities into a dystopian hell.

Those eager to belong are obsessed with living down stereotypes. Others have their families broken up and children sent away for indoctrination in the true American way. Political opponents are assassinated and mass arrests made to pre-empt any threat to the president’s life.

Lindbergh goes missing one day on board his personal aircraft and his Nazi allies are quick to pin the blame on a global Jewish conspiracy. Riots break out, only subdued by frantic appeals from persons of goodwill. Roosevelt contests an emergency election and is restored to the presidency just ahead of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The US enters the world war and history is set back on course.

In the real world, the US then had its moments of prosperity and greatness, culminating in a phase of undisputed global hegemony. But the edifice has come to rest on increasingly infirm foundations, of global alienation, rampant indebtedness, reckless investment policies and rising income disparities. And as the edifice crumbles, reality begins to weave a scenario weirder than anything Roth could create on a fictional canvas.

Hours before polling opened in the Republican primary in South Carolina state, presidential aspirant Donald Trump, a reality show host and businessman of many bankruptcies, revived a sordid tale from the US conquest of the Philippines early last century. It involved an icon of US military history, General JJ Pershing, regarded as mentor to generations of military commanders. Pershing’s strategy in dealing with a recalcitrant Muslim tribe in the Philippines was simply to execute several among their leaders with cartridges dipped in pig’s blood. To make sure the rebels got it, he kept alive one among them and assigned him the job of carrying back the message about the futility of resistance.

Good wars for the imposition of western values are normally immune to historical interrogation. Military atrocities and war crimes in the Philippines have been acknowledged in recent historical scholarship, but the incident that Trump chose to blazon as his strategy for dealing with regions of unrest, is yet to be credited as fact. Even if true, it is a story to be buried in the deepest recesses of military infamy, not aired as potential strategy when the US is at war across a wide global stretch from Pakistan to Syria.

Trump won South Carolina and has since proved he is quick to pick up the messages that sell. He dissembled when handed an endorsement by the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan, pretending that he knew nothing about the organisation or its leadership. This would, in different times, have been an obvious disqualification for high office, except that within days, Trump swept to still more dramatic victory in the ‘Super Tuesday’ primaries on March 1.

Simplicity is Trump’s great merit as he notches up one implausible victory after another. His closest rival, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, is not far behind with his vows to unleash a fury of bombs that would make the Syrian sands glow in the dark. But Cruz is too prone to complicate his core message with a rather pointless evangelical fervour. Trump’s plan to deal with the Islamic State militia by going after their families — Geneva Conventions be damned — seems viscerally more satisfying to an electorate longing for vengeance against unseen and inchoate enemies.

Again, compared to Trump’s intent to expel 10 million immigrants within days of becoming president, Cruz seems willing to secrete such plans behind a thick verbal camouflage. A third contender, Senator Marco Rubio, has so far been unable to tap into the raw political mood that drives the base, despite the blessings of the establishment.

There is a certain political logic in extreme tendencies being spawned by a bitterly polarised moment, when income disparities are historically at their worst and expectations of the future glum. On the Democratic side, there is a sane and rational mirror image of the unhinged Trump candidacy, in Bernie Sander’s insurgent left-wing campaign, which runs on virtually the single issue of disciplining Wall Street.

Similar potential for polarisation has existed in the past, but party establishments have succeeded in checking the drift to the extremes. Republicans and Democrats have stolen each other’s voters and have competed for the middle ground where the politics of opportunity is shaped.

That logic seems to be working for the Democrats, with the party establishment summoning its machinery into action, to effectively run the Sanders campaign out of the arena. But the Republican Party just does not seem up to the job, enervated by decades of anti-establishment fury, by the unreasoning rage against government that was fostered by its late lamented saint, Ronald Reagan.

Reagan left the party with the toxic legacy of the politics of racism, with the dog-whistle that called on the faithful to battle for “states’ rights” and unsubtle canards against “welfare queens” riding luxury limousines while collecting the cheques that hard working citizens paid for. The fissures that were partly healed with the civil rights legislation of the 1960s were brutally reopened during his term, and then briefly papered over in the euphoria of global domination. But that long sleep is now over and the US is awakening in a mood of disorientation that spells danger at multiple levels.

Sukumar Muralidharan is an independent writer and researcher based in Gurgaon and Shimla

Published on March 04, 2016

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