Why Biden’s win doesn’t ensure a return to the old order in deeply-divided America

Kanishk Tharoor | Updated on December 01, 2020

Black and white: In Trump’s America, the beliefs of Marjorie Taylor Greene, a newly-elected Republican representative, are her own and not subject to the scrutiny and derision of liberals   -  REUTERS/ELIJAH NOUVELAGE

The rise of populists in democracies world over hasn’t just led to the emergence of parallel universes of information and belief, but a declared independence from the sway of the proverbial liberal elite

* Greene’s refusal to engage on the matter of QAnon was not deflection but rather a rejection of the media’s authority and jurisdiction

* Rejecting the liberal elite allows people to place themselves at the centre of worlds of their own making

* What is true in the US is also true elsewhere


In November, a BBC journalist approached Marjorie Taylor Greene in Washington during the so-called “Million MAGA March” in support of President Donald Trump. Greene, a newly-elected Republican representative from Georgia, has achieved international recognition as the first member of the US Congress to subscribe to the quixotic but growing QAnon conspiracy theory, which imagines that Trump is secretly at war with a shadowy organisation of Satanist child-traffickers and paedophiles. The British reporter thrust himself through the raucous crowd. “Question from the BBC in London,” he began. “Do you really believe that Donald Trump is fighting a cabal of Satan-worshiping paedophiles?” Greene didn’t miss a beat. “Trump is fighting to save America and stop socialism,” she replied, to the cheers of supporters. “This is about our country — America first! — not about the BBC. You’re ridiculous. Why don’t you go cover Russian-collusion conspiracy theory lies? Why don’t you cover that?”

This exchange was revealing not for Greene’s xenophobia and snarling hostility but for her imperviousness to the question. Yes, the very origin of the question, coming as it did from “the BBC in London,” doomed it to dismissal. Greene lumped the BBC with the rest of the “mainstream media” that fixated on Trump’s dealings with Russia and other allegations of misconduct. Her refusal to engage on the matter of QAnon was not deflection but rather a rejection of the media’s authority and jurisdiction. In Trump’s America, her beliefs were her own and not subject to the scrutiny and derision of liberals. “Get out!” she yelled at the journalist to approving roars. “Get out!”

The rise of so-called populists in democracies around the world has occasioned much hand-wringing over just this phenomenon, of the emergence of parallel universes of information and belief. How can a democratic society sustain such a polarised public, whose shared basis of truth continues to evaporate? But as Greene shows, the problem is not so much one of polarisation as of secession. She and many other Trump voters have declared independence from the sway of the people and institutions — the proverbial liberal elite — that have long seemed to govern public life, and that would deem her and her QAnon co-conspirators heretical or, at the very least, provincial. Lots of forces drive cultish belief in QAnon or tribal fealty to Trump (not least unvarnished racism and post-industrial squalor), but the most charitable reading points to an elemental desire: Rejecting the liberal elite allows people to place themselves at the centre of worlds of their own making.

What is true in the US is also true elsewhere. Support for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan often channels the resentment that people in smaller towns hold for the cosmopolitan elites in Istanbul. The British voters who opted to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum cast their choice as a rejection of the establishment: “We are fed up of the so-called elite not listening to us and we suffer,” one Brexiteer told The Guardian. In 2014, a boatman in the north Indian town of Varanasi explained to writer Aatish Taseer why he would celebrate the election of Narendra Modi as prime minister. “When Modi comes to power,” he said, “we’ll send this government of the English packing”. The boatman was referring not to the British, of course, but to the generations of mostly well-educated, English-fluent leaders who ran the country since Independence. The voters who powered Modi’s victory in 2014 (and his re-election in 2019) may have shared crude anti-Muslim sentiments or been seduced by Modi’s (increasingly hollow) claims of managerial know-how. But many voters also saw in Modi a figure who was more like them than the typical Indian prime minister: He was the son of a tea-seller. He was not, like his rival, the Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi, a scion of a dynasty and a member of an aloof elite class that led lives immeasurably distant from those of most Indians.

The election in the US of Joe Biden and the defeat of Trump has stirred hopes in many liberals of a restoration of an older order, in which the establishment was respected and — especially now during a pandemic — expertise was granted unimpeachable authority. They will almost certainly be disappointed. Biden will become president in January of a bitterly divided country, in which millions of citizens, having accepted the fictions of Trump and his enablers, will believe that he is not a legitimate president. Americans, as they are no doubt entitled to, increasingly consume different sources of news media, espouse different versions of their national history, even watch different TV shows (one study shows that Democrats and Republicans disagree about Game of Thrones— Democrats love it, Republicans do not), and, thanks to social media, are less exposed to differing world views. A cultural chasm is widening perilously in the US and in many other democracies.

But to bridge that chasm, Biden and other liberals must recognise that the old order didn’t work for many people. The US has become a staggeringly unequal country in recent decades with diminished social mobility, a shift that fuelled Trump’s rise. QAnon-believers such as Greene merit ridicule, but they also point the direction ahead: In times of ontological confusion and mistrust, you can’t win people over with facts and evidence. The only convincing argument that Biden can offer is tangible, material change.

Kanishk Tharoor   -  BUSINESS LINE


Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among Stars, a collection of short fiction; Twitter: @kanishktharoor

Published on December 01, 2020

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