History is being made in Washington’s power corridor. These are times of an outbreak of unity. If that sounds improbable, an explanation is required. Each of the pillars of government has chorused its disapproval of Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for the US presidential election. Incumbent Barack Obama, representing the executive, called him “unfit” to occupy the Oval Office. A Supreme Court judge, Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, has given her judicious view of The Donald, later withdrawn due to accusations of impropriety.
The legislature, meanwhile, has its voices, not just Democrats, but also the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan and a host of Republican senators, who are just as vehement that Trump’s big mouth will swallow their electoral prospects in November.
The Fourth Estate, the media, is swamped by Trump and faces the dilemma of what bile spewed by Trump can be featured as the lead, since it’s spoiled for choice on that front. These are the ties that bind, and provide a gag reflex from the American establishment.
Trump’s latest outrage, an attack on the parents of a Pakistani-American soldier martyred in the Iraq war, is yet another instance of tripping over his outsized ego whenever it’s poked at. There’s a reason why career politicians develop a thick skin — it’s to save their hides. Trump’s skin is thinner than parchment, and his reactions seem to vindicate his opponent Hillary Clinton’s remarks at the recent Democratic convention that he could be “baited with a tweet”. His misguided missiles spare no one, not even infants — he’s been seen kissing a baby (making it cry) and dissing another (because it cried). But while American elections (and certainly those in India) have been marked by statements that have sunk campaigns, Trump’s one-man Bozo eruption of historic proportions hasn’t yet quelled his querulousness.
Any other candidate would have become a footnote by now, but Trump’s foot-in-mouth flotilla remains afloat partly because he is facing another remarkably unpopular contestant, who he has graciously dubbed “The Devil”. And while he has been pilloried by the four traditional pillars of democracy, the Fifth Estate has been kinder to Trump.
This is the realm of social media, hacktivists, Photoshoppers, bloggers and their kin. While describing the mainstream press as “that slime”, Trump will speak adoringly of his followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. He has 10.6 million followers on Twitter, 25% heftier than her tally. This is the platform of the age, edgy and blunt at the same time. It matches Trump to a T, there’s no need for nuance, there’s little hunting of the snark and memes can be made to go forth and multiply.
Trump is enabled by fellow trollers engaged in 140 character assassination. But that’s not the only gift he gets from the digital domain. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, has already given us data dumps that have claimed the scalps of Democratic National Committee head and Clinton confidante Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and almost its entire executive. While the identity of the hackers is yet to be established, the nexus is clear. WikiLeaks’ social presence, other than seeking Assange’s release, is awash with anti-Clinton posts. In fact, their Twitter poll for presidential preference has Trump at 50% and Hillary at a measly 22. Assange has promised more leaks, perhaps the classic October surprise, digitally repurposed.
Meanwhile, Clinton’s challenger Bernie Sanders may have finally endorsed her, even if grudgingly, but the Green Party candidate Jill Stein is trying to vacuum up the disaffected loyalists of the Vermont senator with her hashtag #JillNotHill, and the slogan: Time to reject the lesser evil for the greater good.
As we’ve seen with Islamic State propaganda and recruitment, or with WhatsApp-driven communal confrontations in India, this space brings out the worst instints (as Trump misspells that word on Twitter) in people. Clinton belongs to the age when messaging mattered in politics and elections. Trump has proven instant messaging may matter just as much.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed are personal