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Donald Trump is a blank sheet of paper

December 12, 2016 12:46 IST

'You can ascribe any ideology to him, and it will be equally right or equally wrong.'
'Even though the comrades on the Left will never admit it, he seems as much Stalinist as capitalist,' says T V R Shenoy.

Putin and Trump supporters in Italy 

'Is Donald Trump a Communist?' a voice bellowed across a transcontinental line early one morning.

My first thought was that I had misheard. My telephone connection has intermittent problems, and in any case I was groggy (the result of staying up half the night to watch the American election results).

My second thought was that my friend was suddenly going back to the MCarthyism that was prevalent in the United States back in my own school days. (According to some surveys, many Americans apparently believe that the 1950s were some sort of a Golden Age, so why not?)

Many a Hillary Clinton supporter did try to paint the Republican candidate as a puppet on a Russian string, the thought that the classic film The Manchurian Candidate was being enacted in real life, with Trump playing Frank Sinatra's role, was too much to swallow.

So, I came up with the appropriate response, "Um, what?!"

My friend explained. The American real estate tycoon's brief career in politics rather resembled the progress of the Communists in Russia.

To start with, the Anarchists, political ancestors of the Marxist-Leninists, were little more than bomb-throwers. They lived by a set of simplistic slogans.

'Everyone in authority is corrupt.'

'There can be no progress until the whole rotten system is completely shattered.'

'Incremental progress is a pipedream, our way of direct action is the only way forward.'

That is, boiled down to essentials, the same creed that Donald Trump was preaching. [As, by the way, are Arvind Kejriwal and his merry band -- but that is a tale for another column.]

In the second stage, the Bolsheviks reached out to the proletariat of imperial Russia, mostly industrial workers but also disgruntled, ill-paid soldiers.

And it was precisely these people who responded most enthusiastically to Donald Trump's blandishments.

'Proletariat' is a word that no mainstream American politician would employ, but it was army veterans and the unemployed -- or underemployed -- workers from once booming American factories in states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania who carried the Republicans to victory.

In the third and final stage, having won power, the Communists built walls.

'Iron Curtain' may have been a figure of speech, but the Berlin Wall was a physical object made of concrete and barbed wire that extended for 43.1 km through the heart of the German capital.

Donald Trump, of course, won his early plaudits by vowing to build a wall between Mexico and the United States.

And none of that makes Donald Trump a Communist!

The point is that Donald Trump is the closest that any American politician has come in modern times to being a blank sheet of paper.

You can ascribe any ideology to him, and it will be equally right -- or equally wrong.

The 'establishment,' which he railed against in rally after rally, was as much Republican as it was Democrat. That means he comes to the most powerful job in the world absolutely untrammelled by any Republican principles.

There is a chameleon-like quality to Trump that makes him hard to pin down. And he has, in fact, identified himself at varying times as a Republican, as a Democrat, and even as an independent.

That elusiveness means that he could well be a Socialist, a Capitalist, or anything between.

Having made no attempt to articulate a clear set of policies before or during the campaign, the only clues to his future policy lie in his past actions.

He has been a consistent supporter of the police -- security personnel in general -- and it is quite possible that he will try to push through legislation that makes it mandatory to enforce the death penalty for killing an officer of the law.

And he may also be as willing as the George W Bush administration to permit 'enhanced interrogation techniques' -- a fancy term for 'torture' -- where terrorists are concerned.

That is of no concern to India, as it lies in the domain of internal American policy. But Trump has also been a remarkably consistent opponent of free trade as far back as 1987 when he openly criticised Ronald Reagan, one of the patron saints of the modern Republican party.

He opposed NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), he opposed American support for China entering the World Trade Agreement club, and he opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiated by the Obama administration.

Hillary Clinton's husband was the US president that created NAFTA and backed China's admission to the global trading order; she herself was in favour of the Trans-Pacific Partnership before she started opposing it -- very probably in response to Bernie Sanders.

Finally, Trump has indicated that he is not a fan of American military intervention in other nations, and has called on others -- Japan, South Korea, the European Union -- to bear the cost of defending themselves.

How will these policies affect India?

It is impossible to predict given the way that Trump's own party, the Republicans, have historically been in favour of free trade and military alliances. But assume, for argument's sake, that he gets his way.

A trade war with China or Mexico -- two countries Trump has consistently denounced as 'cheats' -- could easily spread into a rash of protectionism that spreads to every country.

The Chinese economy, it is generally agreed, is slowing down, and an American assault could drive it into outright recession.

Faced with domestic discontent, Chinese's autocratic rulers could be driven into the classic response of adventurism in foreign policy, using the surge in national spirit to counter home-grown unease. That is not good news for India.

The US Navy has kept the sea lanes open to traffic for all nations. If American power is withdrawn and if the Chinese try to fill that vacuum there is likely to be a realignment of powers all across South-East and East Asia.

Both the Japanese -- themselves undergoing a surge in nationalistic spirit under Prime Minister Abe -- and the South Koreans could well go in for nuclear options of their own if they believe that they are no longer under America's umbrella.

Trump spoke at his rallies of imposing a 45% tariff on Chinese imports into the United States; what if he extends that principle to India?

How prepared is, for instance, India's software sector if new charges are laid on India-based services?

Long before the Iron Curtain came into being, long before World War II began, Stalin had begun the process of ring-fencing the Soviet Union economically, trying to turn it into a self-sufficient entity.

While Trump almost certainly does not believe in Five Year Plans, his vision of America as a self-contained economy is not all that different. And he definitely shares the Soviet dictator's obsession with grand projects -- dams, bridges, highways spreading across the continent, and so forth.

There are other worryingly neo-Stalinist tendencies to Trump's personality. He has no great love for a free media, and has threatened to bring in new laws that would make it easier to sue for libel.

And, like most Russian rulers, from the Tsars down to Vladimir Putin, his attitude to women has been uncompromisingly chauvinistic. (By the way, can you name any woman that has been either general secretary of the CPI-M, or chief minister in a CPI-M government?)

My friend was obviously joking in calling Trump a 'Communist'. And he is far too much of a maverick to be a 'Manchurian Candidate'. But yes, even though the comrades on the Left will never admit it, he seems as much Stalinist as capitalist.

I foresee interesting times when Donald Trump takes charge.

IMAGE: Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump supporters in Milan, Italy. Photograph: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

T V R Shenoy