The 2010s Were the End of Normal – How social media, the Great Recession and Donald Trump combined to bring out the ‘indigenous American berserk.’
Given that many of us have spent our Christmas break speaking to friends and relatives who are either worried about the CAA-NRC turmoil in India or are exultant about India’s turn to the Right, we felt it is worth beginning the New Year on a positive note. We believe that this too shall pass, that the Indian Republic will emerge from its current examination stronger, not weaker. We shall overcome. Some of our reasons for optimism are echoed by this piece in the New York Times. Whilst Ms Kakutani’s piece is about USA and Trump, you can replace these proper nouns with Indian ones to understand why the Indian republic too can follow a similar path as the American one.
The first strand of optimism arises from the fact that American history reveals the rise of the Right to be episodic as opposed to being structural. Historian Richard Hofstadter calls Trump’s style of leadership “the paranoid style”. “The “paranoid style,” Hofstadter observed, tends to occur in “episodic waves.” The modern right wing, he wrote, feels dispossessed: “America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it.” In their view, “the old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals,” and national independence has been “destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major statesmen seated at the very centers of American power.”
One well-known eruption of the “paranoid style” occurred in the 1950s with the anti-Communist hysteria led by Joseph McCarthy. It would surface again in the 1960s with the emergence on the national stage of George C. Wallace, who ran a presidential campaign fueled by racism and white working-class rage.
In his 2018 book “The Soul of America,” the historian Jon Meacham also wrote about the cycles of hope and fear in American history, emphasizing the role that presidents play in setting a tone for the country and defining — or undermining — its founding ideals. He wrote about presidents who have worked to unify the country and appeal to what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” and those who have courted discord and division.
Lincoln was followed in office by his vice president Andrew Johnson, a champion of white supremacy who pardoned more than 7,000 Confederates and opposed the 14th Amendment. Johnson was impeached in 1868…”
Secondly, extremist sentiments rise when the economy is under the pump and such sentiments abate when prosperity becomes more widespread. “Mr. Meacham note that “extremism, racism, nativism, and isolationism, driven by fear of the unknown, tend to spike in periods of economic and social stress.” Periods, that is, like our own, when change of every sort is blowing across the globe.
The event that turned people’s sense of dislocation and disillusionment into populist anger on both the right (the Tea Party) and the left (Occupy Wall Street and, later, Bernie Sanders’s candidacy) was the 2008 financial crisis. Trust in government had been in sharp decline in previous decades — driven by Watergate and Vietnam in the 1970s, and more recently by the invasion of Iraq and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction there…But the lingering fallout of the 2008 crash — growing income inequality, declining social mobility and dwindling job security — ignited rage against the elites and the status quo.
While the banks were bailed out and the fortunate 1 percent soon made back its losses (and more), working- and middle-class voters struggled to make up lost ground.”
Thirdly, the incompetence of paranoid, authoritarian right wing rulers sows the seeds of their own demise. “As a candidate, Mr. Trump sold himself as the champion of such voters — whom he called “the forgotten men and women” — and he promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington. But once in office, he enlarged the swamp, hiring some 281 lobbyists, and set about cutting taxes for corporations and the very rich.
He also began a war on the institutions that were the very pillars of the government he now headed. In early 2017, Mr. Trump’s then adviser and strategist Steve Bannon vowed that the administration would wage a tireless battle for the “deconstruction of the administrative state” and the administration has done so ever since — nihilistically trying to undermine public faith in the efficacy, the professionalism, even the mission of the institutions that are crucial for guarding our national security, negotiating with foreign governments and ensuring the safety of our environment and workplaces. Mr. Trump also launched chilling attacks on those he reviled — from the F.B.I. to the judiciary — for having failed to put loyalty to him ahead of loyalty to the Constitution.
This is familiar behavior among authoritarians and would-be dictators, who resent constitutional checks and balances, and who want to make themselves the sole arbiters of truth and reality. A reporter said that in 2016 when she asked Mr. Trump why he continually assailed the press, he replied: “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”…
One of the terrible ironies of Mr. Trump’s presidency is that his administration’s dysfunction — little to no policymaking process on many issues, impulsive decision-making, contempt for expertise and plunging morale at beleaguered agencies — creates a toxic feedback loop that further undermines public trust in the government and lends momentum to his desire to eviscerate the “deep state.” The conflicts of interest that swirl around Mr. Trump and his cronies further increase the public’s perception of corruption and unfairness.”