It was hard to take Donald Trump seriously in the more innocent phase of the present US presidential elections, say, about five months ago. Remember his memorable response to Marco Rubio on his qualifications to be the Republican contender for the most powerful office in the world: “My fingers are long and beautiful as, it has been well documented, are various other parts of my body”?
Today Trump is on an even better documented path to be that contender. A desperate Republican establishment is firing broadsides in an attempt to sink his candidacy. If nothing else, he is dividing his party. Two out of five registered Republicans say they would never vote for Trump. If the maverick real-estate developer emerges victorious from his party convention come July, be prepared for some conservatives considering endorsing Hillary Clinton.
Yet Donald Syndrome is not confined to one side of the Atlantic. The whole Western world is in the grip of a populist surge. And it isn’t just a rightwing thing: Think Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders. Mash it together and it’s safe to say the West hasn’t seen this level of insurgent politics since World War II.
Anti-immigrant parties have spread like cancer across Europe. Such parties are now challenging the mainstream in all the largest European countries — Germany, the UK, Italy and France. Marine Le Pen’s National Front party took 28% of the vote in France’s regional elections. Chancellor Angela Merkel is caught between the devil of xenophobic Alternative for Germany and a deep blue sea full of Syrian refugees. One such, the Law and Justice Party, now rules in Poland. Scandinavians, using to preening about their ultra-liberal ways, are voting in larger numbers for foreigner-unfriendly Sweden Democrats and True Finns.
Much of Trumpspeak has been part of the European political discourse for the past five years ago.
Anti-Muslim rhetoric? Two European party leaders, one of them Le Pen, have been charged with hate crimes for their Arab bashing. Germany’s Pegida makes Alternative for Democracy look a decent, ah, alternative.
Building walls against illegals? Hungary’s ruler Viktor Orban has already done so to keep Syrians and Afghans out of his country. Brussels denounced him. At home his approval rating soared 15 percentage points.
Support for protectionism? While it’s evident everywhere, opposition to trade is rising even in Germany, a country whose bedrock is its status as the world’s largest exporter.
So why have large chunks of the world’s most advanced and best-educated populations suddenly returned to the policies of cavemen? A closer inspection of populism in the developed world shows a common thread.
The root of all evil is working class angst. A Trump supporter has a clear profile: he will be an older blue-collar white male, lacks a college education, conservative in his values and only periodically employed. His income has either dropped or stagnated for the past 50 years.
His forefathers would have voted for Franklin Roosevelt and he would have first voted Republican when Ronald Reagan ran. Today, he doesn’t know who to turn to. In his eyes, his country is run by an urban elite, which is okay with gay marriage, free trade and open borders, and holds him in contempt — and both Republican or Democrats leaders are cut from this cloth.
The Democrats, for example, have deliberately driven away its old working class base in favour of a coalition of minorities and what is now fashionably called the ‘cosmopolitan’ urban middle class. Many of his ilk shifted to the Republicans but have since been alienated by the party’s close links to big business, and touchstone support for free markets and immigration.
Then there came Trump. Strictly speaking, he is not a conservative. He does not care for free markets. He actually wants to expand Obamacare. More reasons, if there were not enough, that the Republican establishment seems him as an interloper. His real attraction lies in talking and acting in a manner different from the Rest. He broadcasts one message, “I am not part of the political elite that no longer even attempts to understand you.” A remarkable amount of his podium talk is about reality TV stars. After that, what Trump actually believes in seems irrelevant, such is the level of disgruntlement.
It is a measure of their alienation that these redneck resurgents are taken in by someone who is so obviously not one of them. As he Trump likes to say, “The beauty of me is that I’m very rich.” Wo, why should an out-of-work American believe he will help him? This ability to exploit political and cultural insecurity is the art of the confidence trickster. In politics it is the skill of the demagogue.
Watch | How Donald Trump takes the Republican debate below the belt
A similar game has been playing out in Europe. The European elite has been much taken with the idea of a single union — after all, it has earned them collectively a Nobel peace prize. But the unification, in its most recent phases, has been pushed through with the bare minimum of popular support. Again, the sense of an elite that sees no point in consulting the masses, where judges and bureaucrats rather than legislatures and popular vote set policies, is palpable.
Unsurprisingly, when the European Union began to have problems, the anti-Brussels politician began to emerge from the fringes. Rightwing populism in Europe is thus tightly interwoven with opposition to the European Union, in the same way its American variant is all about opposing Washington’s Beltway residents. Vote share for such parties has been rising since the beginnings of the Eurozone financial crisis in 2011. Merkel may be praised by cosmopolitans worldwide for her refugee policy. Among a sizeable number of Germans, it is being seen as rank madness.
Finally, there is a spreading and mindless political correctness where no one can seriously debate certain uncomfortable issues in the West. Base prejudices do exist and they are best aired, tackled through persuasion. Censorship doesn’t make the prejudices go away. Many of the supporters of Trump and Trumpites in Europe like them because they give vent to opinion they know exist on the street but are being silenced in media, academics and political debate.
Or as Trump has put it, in only the way he would want to, “I think the only difference between me and the other candidates is that I’m more honest and my women are more beautiful.”
Also read | Why a Trump presidency may be good for India