In the United States of America my liberal friends — all of whom were supporters of Hillary Clinton (even if some would have preferred a Bernie Sanders candidacy) — are recovering from their speechless shock at the stunning Donald Trump Victory to either endorse the anti-presidency street protests or emphasise that in fact it was Clinton who won the popular vote. This is precisely the sort of Liberal Denialism that created the Trump phenomenon to begin with.
Remember how Trump was pilloried and mocked (and rightly so) when he declared that he would only accept the verdict if he won. Imagine if he, not Hillary, had been the one who was ‘Gored’ (In 2000, Democratic nominee Al Gore won the popular vote but lost to George W Bush because of the infamous dead heat in Florida). What if these were his supporters out on the roads shouting “Not My President” about Clinton? Can you imagine the contempt that would have been unpacked on them? For progressives to suddenly question why the US electoral college prevails over the popular vote (while previously counting on the impossible arithmetic of Trump winning all the battleground states to ensure a Hillary win) is similar to critics of the BJP in India dissing the mandate of the Modi government on the grounds that it only has 31% of the vote-share. Again, in India, the argument on vote-share percentages failed because of the glaringly selective application of the benchmark; in 2009 the Congress won on 29% without much public debate or comment on the scope of the mandate.
As flawed as these systems may be — whether the first past the post system in India or the electoral college in the US — they have been long accepted and unquestioned instruments of democracy. At a time when there appears to be a global lurch to Right of Centre politics — think 2014 in India, Brexit in the United Kingdom and now the shock US result — to ignore the clear pattern of populism and nativism trumping the perceived elitism of liberal politics is to entirely miss the writing on the wall.
Since the results I’ve seen a lot of commentary in the American media about “normalising” the Trump presidency. Many irate liberal commentators have dubbed this as a hasty sell-out by big corporate media. This is another liberal self-goal; Trump is president because of an election he won fair and square. American citizens certainly do not have to accept the transgressions and mistakes and prejudices of his government but they can’t reject the fact that he will now lead their country. As for the criticism of surrendering to the “new normal” — the day Trump became the official Republic nominee his politics was already mainstreamed; on what basis can one question its “normalcy” now that the democratic system has spoken.
This is not to validate, in any way, the abhorrent misogyny and racism of the Trump campaign. Or to suggest that values that speak for equality, humanism and justice for all are not worth fighting for. How to save democracy from majoritarianism is a constant battle in countries across the world. The trepidation, scepticism and fear among Americans who did not vote for Trump is completely understandable — especially with the surge in hate speech and racist comments (think of the West Virginia government official who called Michelle Obama an “Ape in Heels”) since his victory.
The sheer complexity of governance may well force Trump to pivot to the Centre from the far-Right rhetoric he ran on. But what of all the supporters he has emboldened with prejudice? What if they do not respect the diversity and rights that the office of president will compel Trump to?
What the Trump presidency calls for then is watchful scrutiny. His near-hysterical reactions to the New York Times and constant monitoring of the newspaper show that he does care about what the media says. He may have won an election despite the critique of mainstream media but it is now that the real work for journalists begins. The watchdog role however cannot be rooted in a non-acceptance of his presidency or ex-post-facto criticism of the polling system that elected him. And there can certainly be no romance around protests that have spoken of Melania Trump in the worst possible language, with some posters even threatening sexual violence. The answer to Trump’s brazen sexism is not more sexism.
Eventually the Trump presidency is an opportunity for liberal politics to re-examine itself. Like liberals across the world, Americans on the Left of the spectrum will have to ask themselves how their country’s politics got so polarised that no dialogue is possible across the ideological aisle. In India too, the Americanisation of our politics is complete — and not only because it is more and more personality-oriented. In the post-truth world of social media where lies and hatred are amplified, it is nuance that has been drowned out and the extremes that are voluble and thus heard.
What then happens to those who sit squarely in the centre — not on the fence — but simply equidistant from the dogma of either the Left or the Right? Where and how do they find a voice in the country’s discourse? Could it be that the polemics of aggressive nationalism and the “othering” of the “outsider” is the result of liberals refusing to engage with any view different from their own? Has the common cultural and social pedigree of the Left-leaning intelligentsia created the impression of an elite intellectuals’ club that carries a “No Entry” sign for the masses? What explains this blow-back to values that were once accepted as the enlightened norm? Have liberals only been talking to themselves in an echo-chamber that shut their ears to the sounds of a changing world outside?
This is a question that liberals across the world must ponder over. And I say that as one.
Barkha Dutt is consulting editor, NDTV, and founding member, Ideas Collective
The views expressed are personal