The new normal of Trump-world

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on December 09, 2016
Hate trumps: Eighty per cent of an online survey of 10,000 teachers across the US spoke of “heightened anxiety and concern” among students about the implications for themselves and their families post elections.

Hate trumps: Eighty per cent of an online survey of 10,000 teachers across the US spoke of “heightened anxiety and concern” among students about the implications for themselves and their families post elections.   -  Reuters

Sukumar Muralidharan

Sukumar Muralidharan

The US President-elect is focused not so much on improving things, as creating analternate reality for the millions who flocked to his banner

An election campaign’s end is by tradition the time for laying aside suspicions and anxieties, when political and civic institutions combine forces to restore the normal. Despite all efforts though, US President-elect Donald Trump has shown little inclination to settle into a template of normality.

There may have been a method in the madness, a clever game of bait-and-switch that distracted from multiple sources of potential embarrassment. Soon after his election, Trump quietly settled a class action suit involving a fraudulent university he ran for long. There was a substantial payout involved and questions posed afresh about how he had, through a bruising campaign, evaded accountability for his shady business practices.

What Trump chose by deliberate intent not to do was equally important. Soon after the election, civil rights groups began registering an alarming upsurge in acts overtly motivated by racial and ethnic animosity. The Southern Poverty Law Centre, a well-regarded campaign and advocacy group, found from an online survey of 10,000 teachers across the US, that the election results were causing a “profoundly negative impact on schools and students”. A deterioration in expected school standards of conduct was reported by 90 per cent respondents. Eighty per cent of respondents spoke of “heightened anxiety and concern” among students about the implications for themselves and their families.

Trump chose not to cast his eyes in that direction and take note of the anxieties that many millions in the US were beset by. His victory was built on another category of anxiety, after a campaign propelled by resentment at the indifference of a loosely defined “establishment”. It leveraged the profound dissonance in how the world was seen by the political establishment and by ordinary people who suffered the daily lash of economic uncertainty.

Yet Trump’s promise is not so much to improve things, as to create an alternate reality. Facts as conventionally understood are irrelevant, since it is how the leader defines the world that matters. Every claim that Trump made his signature during the campaign was proven outrageously false. Yet that was immaterial, since the crowds that flocked to his banner were responding not to the compelling power of fact, but to his intent to remake the world in the image of those false perceptions.

Trump’s choice for key positions of figures, associated with the dark past of racial segregation and its modern variant of white nationalism, is profoundly consequential. So too the quite brazen involvement of some among his close aides in the storm of fake news spread through social media.

Politics is a game of mass illusion and depends in many ways upon misperceptions of reality among those regarded as ultimate arbiters of power. Even if power is won on this basis, there are necessary cautions in its exercise. Power involves intruding into other’s perceptions and when these are widely divergent, conflict becomes inevitable.

Trump’s MAGA project — to “make America great again” — seeks to fulfil a promise only incipient in earlier Republican administrations. The case was made by a top aide to President George W Bush during his second term, won on the back of a “war on terror” that had just meandered into the quagmire of Iraq. The trouble with critics of the Bush strategy, said this major domo of a failing presidency, was that they were all based within the “fact-based community”. The presidency though, operated on a “faith basis” and this meant creating facts to the best convenience of the US. As people mired in the realm of fact sought to digest fresh realities, the global superpower would go ahead and create an entirely new one.

A key difference with the prospective Trump administration is the weakening domestic consensus around factually loose governance. Trump’s response to his defeat in the popular vote by a substantial margin of 2.5 million has been to claim massive voter fraud. Though the claim has been debunked by everybody with some understanding of the issue, the writing on the wall is clear and consistent with Trump’s rabid campaign rhetoric. He intends to create a new reality that will disenfranchise millions of voters.

Business and industry lobbies are unlikely to see a pathway out of their current malaise in the mess Trump has served up as policy. On his victory march, he held out the inducement of a large tax break to air-conditioning company Carrier to rescind a decision to partially shift manufacturing to Mexico. In the same breath, he warned other companies harbouring similar intentions of punitive taxes. He has threatened the biggest US exporter, Boeing, with the punitive cancellation of a contract merely because its chief executive expressed some scepticism about his policy approach, and continued hiring cheap immigrant labour for his resort properties across the US.

Trump has brazenly resisted calls to put a distance between the presidency and his very opaque business interests, and associated near family members with his early tutelage in affairs of state. This brew of mutually repellent ingredients will inevitably fail to deliver the results promised by project MAGA. And then perhaps the survival imperative may trigger a rebellion by the corrupt and pusillanimous Republican Party establishment and the business interests that underwrite it. Sooner rather than later, Trump will be held to the standards of accountability he evaded through his campaign for office. Those invested in his reign of error are unlikely to submit without fateful and perhaps irreversible damage to the foundations of political civility.

Sukumar Muralidharan is an independent writer and researcher based in Gurugram

Published on December 09, 2016
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