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Trump's Triumph: The Fear of Others

By Shreekant Sambrani
November 16, 2016 10:47 IST
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'Competence, experience, matter, did you say?'
'No music was sweeter than the mash of xenophobia, jingoism, racism, misogyny.'
'And the master busker to play the tune was round the corner to capture an eager audience just in the nick of time.'
Shreekant Sambrani on the Trump Triumph a week after his upset victory.

Indian call centre

IMAGE: Middle-income earners in the US states Donlad Trump and the Republican party won may have been bothered by jobs gone offshore like to an Indian call centre like this one. Photograph: Fayaz Kabli/Reuters

By now almost every Wednesday morning (poll) quarterback (including, first, yours truly) has spent much time and energy tracing the root cause of the shock and awe of November 8 to the deep economic angst of the blue-collar, white Middle America.

In view of some later evidence, that may be only a partial explanation. Here is an attempt to extend the thinking further.

I have seen some exit poll data analysis that shows that Hillary Clinton in fact outpolled Donald Trump in households with income under $50,000.

I also heard J D Vance, the balladeer of Hillbilly Elegies (I have not read it, I don't think it is available in India yet, but I have seen glowing reviews of it) on the morning after. He is most articulate, with deep roots in the Appalachians.

He said that people of his and his parents' generation feel that while Trump at least talks of them, there is no real hope that Trump or any other leader can do much to relieve their economic misery, leave alone reverse it, any time soon.

On the basis of this admittedly anecdotal evidence, I tend to believe that the actual economic injustice for large swathes of Red America is only a part of the explanation of the appeal of the Trump phenomenon.

What matters most is perception.

Some more pieces of Big Data could help. First, the total voter turnout in 2016 was much lower (under 110 million) than that in 2012 (about 140 million) or possibly even in 2008 (I seem to recall a figure of 120 million, but memory could be playing tricks).

While Clinton got more popular votes than Trump, the margin was much lower, possibly 1 million or so.

Her count was around 52 million, as compared to nearly 72 million for President Obama in 2012. So the bulk of the stay-at-homes were those who voted Democrat four years ago.

Combine this with the what-if scenario of Nate Silver post the verdict. He argues that with just 1 per cent greater share of the vote, the situation would have been the polar opposite: Clinton with 306 electoral votes.

This appears quite convincing, since in each of the major 'flip' states of Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, Clinton conceded margins of only about 100,000 votes.

So the clear fact (not explanation; I will come to that a bit later) was voter fatigue (and much more pronounced among the Democratic legions) in 2016 as compared to 2012.

That resulted in the Obama coalition not delivering the goods for Clinton.

The question we need to ask is: Why did this happen, especially since the Clinton campaign was clearly worried about voter turnout in the final phase of electioneering?

It pulled out all stops, deployed every available celebrity surrogate, volunteers rang doorbells, made calls, put up posters. This was in stark contrast with the Trump campaign, which he himself accurately described as 'just me, just by myself.'

So it was not seeing the writing on the wall, nor lack of resources, that did not deliver the goods for Clinton.

We must therefore entertain the hypothesis that that was a well-nigh impossible task and probe further to understand why it was so.

Consider this: What does your average middle income earner in Red (Republican) States see? He is where he is at best, but most likely worse off as compared to 10 years ago.

He works just as hard, his supervisor is a woman/African-American/immigrant, his factory, if it is working, is as good as it was, only produces (much) less, his Walmart has more Chinese/Korean/Vietnamese goods than ever before selling at prices lower than what he used to pay for American goods (which lasted longer), the call that reminds him of overdue mortgage/credit card payment has a distinct Indian accent even if sports an American name, his daughter, even with good grades, is not sure of a college education because the money he had set aside for it is no longer sufficient but her Chinese/Indian classmates will go to colleges of their choice...

So what does he think?

Others (women/African-Americans/Hispanics/immigrants) are taking away what was rightfully his.

He begins to nurse a victimhood complex and a grievance against the entire group of 'others' (étrangers in Camus' words). He is not ready to consider the fact that his factory did not invest in new machinery, his neighbour's poorly educated son did not want to be a limousine driver, no one wants to work in the fields or on hotel maintenance/housekeeping jobs, most high-school graduates cannot manage a phone-bank to help run modern business communication and so since an economy, like nature, cannot tolerate vacuum, these opportunities fly away, possibly for ever.

What gets his dander up most is that even the country's top job is now held by one of the 'others,' who is getting ready to pass the torch on to yet another 'other.'

Competence, experience, matter, did you say? No music was sweeter than the mash of xenophobia, jingoism, racism, misogyny.

And the master busker to play the tune was round the corner to capture an eager audience just in the nick of time.

Donald Trump with Hillary Clinton

IMAGE: Hillary Clinton with now President-elect Donald Trump. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters


What matters for the fear of otherness to grow is not the reality, but the perception.

That does not always need verification or corroboration. Once planted, it virtually grows by itself, feeding on all the pent-up frustrations, even those wholly unrelated to the situation at hand.

The arch villain is always the other, who must be vanquished by any means necessary.

Here is a provocative proposition: Obama's election in 2008 and his re-election in 2012 ensured that a candidate from his coalition would not succeed him, possibly for a long time.

Think about it: Could he add to his coalition through Congressional/State House races in his terms?

So while the army of volunteers for Clinton went about their tasks diligently, the coalition was either weary of carrying the burden yet again, or complacent in its belief that the 'majority of minorities' assured its continued ascendance.

Either way, the fear and loathing of 'otherness' nursed by the opponents was not to be overcome.

I have written extensively about the sense of victimhood and the phenomenon of fear of 'otherness' it breeds in the Indian context. For brevity, I will cite just two instances.

The Shiv Sena in Mumbai has not just survived, but flourished over half a century. It has successfully spawned an even more rabid offshoot, the MNS. All the hand-wringing and breast-beating by mainstream media and intellectuals cannot loosen its iron-grip on Mumbai civic structures.

In 2002, we heard of the 'injustice' to Hindu 'victims' in Gujarat. One of my respected former colleagues wondered how an overwhelming majority could nurse such grievances.

Well, it did, and gave us a new political dispensation and a prime minister 12 years later. The patron philosopher of the BJP, Deen Dayal Upadhyay, was a prolific writer. But the thesis he is most often remembered for is that the Muslims must not be subjected to..... (appeasement).

I had written just before the October 2014 elections to the Maharashtra assembly (when the BJP was pitted against its ally the Shiv Sena) 'Mr Modi very smartly exploits that innate preference (for the good life) by painting an attractive picture of an economy growing under his leadership, offering more and better paying jobs. That trumps victimhood any day. We will soon know whether this hypothesis is supported by ground reality.'

That is not what Clinton and Obama could not do, so Trump triumphed!

Dr Shreekant Sambrani taught at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and helped set up the Institute of Rural Management, Anand.

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