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Understanding Trump's triumph: Fear is the key

By Sankrant Sanu
November 10, 2016 08:39 IST
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While Trump played on fears about Muslims and immigrants, Hillary played out the fear of Trump, says Sankrant Sanu.

2004. I was in an office in Seattle chatting up the receptionist in the run-up to the presidential elections in which George W Bush and John Kerry were the Republican and Democratic Party candidates.

Bush had had an eventful first term with the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in 2001, followed by, what I considered, a disastrous invasion of Iraq. The Iraq war was a terrible decision, I told the middle-aged woman. She nodded, but my words hadn't really registered.

"They attacked us," she said, quite convinced of that truth. My logic had little effect.

Even in the Blue-leaning state of Washington, I knew she'd be voting for Bush's second term as president.

That event from years ago, gave me an insight into the American mind, and led me to predict the outcome of this presidential election on September 13.

Even though Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11 and was possibly the most secular of the Middle-East dictators, the vote for Bush was visceral. It did not work on logic, but on fear.

And fear is the key to understanding this American election as well.

Trump played on visceral fears of radical Islam and 'Mexican immigrants.' He stuck at the nerve of political correctness created by the Left's hypocrisy and apologia for right-wing Islam.

That doesn't mean that Trump was right. His fanning of fear of immigrants and Muslims was demagoguery.

The US has a tiny Muslim population and does not face a major Muslim terror threat.

Since 9/11, there have been more incidents of right-wing (non-Islamic) terror in the US than by Muslims.

Heck, more people die of falling televisions in the US every year than they die in terror attacks.

But televisions do not make great antagonists. But the visuals shown by them play up the rhetoric of fear, of an America under siege from radical Islam.

Hillary too understood the fear factor.

While Trump played on fears about Muslims and immigrants, Hillary played out the fear of Trump.

Trump supporters were 'deplorable.' They were, literally, the barbarians at the gate.

A Trump presidency would lead to a nuclear holocaust, and Trump was too temperamental to be trusted with the nuclear button.

Hillary not only found support in the Democratic party establishment and much of the media, but also chunks of the Republican party, including former presidents who refused to endorse Trump.

Even the Conservative establishment, including newspapers that had never before endorsed a Democrat, ended up batting in Hillary's favour.

While fear is the key, hope plays a part too.

The media and the major establishment backing Hillary meant that another theme played out in this post-Internet age -- the triumph of social media over mainstream media.

Upsets against the establishment, the talking heads, the opinion makers, and what N N Taleb calls the 'intellectual yet idiots', have played out in votes across the globe.

When Modi was rising to power a whole host of 'prominent intellectuals' wrote an open letters advising people not to vote for him.

Such was the case in Brexit as well.

Here, too, in op-eds and letters, from 'eminent economists' to Nobel Laureates, the 'establishment' lined up behind Hillary.

But people had lost trust in the establishment and its crony networks that showed up in the leaked emails of the Democratic National Committee and in the Podesta Files.

A number of supporters of Bernie Sanders, who has voiced their distaste at the establishment politics that Hillary epitomised, were ready to 'hold their nose' and back Trump.

It was an unlikely shift from the radical Left to the alt Right.

Logically it made little sense for someone who supported Bernie's near Socialist ideas and record of civil-rights activism to throw their weight behind a candidate who all but called global warming a hoax and targeted underprivileged groups.

But people do not vote with logic. They often turn up to vote swayed by emotion and by their gut.

As a non-establishment outsider, Trump turned up as an unlikely saviour.

For the conservatives backing her, Hillary was a known evil, someone they could work with. They may not have agreed with everything she espoused, but with her neo-con leanings she represented the interventionist, aggressive end of American policy.

Conversely, for some Bernie supporters, Trump was the radical choice -- an outsider, a non-interventionist, who could disown American trade deals or even the NATO alliance.

Some Indian Americans also backed Trump, who milked this by playing on Modi's popularity with a corny rendition of 'Abki Bar, Trump Sarkar.' However, for the most part, Modi and Trump could not be more different.

Trump was born with a silver spoon, while Modi climbed his way from poverty.

Trump had never held a public position while Modi became PM on the back of successive successful terms as the chief minister of Gujarat.

Trump is an ostentatious philanderer, while Modi is an abstemious brahmachari.

Modi is a yogi immersed in India's pluralistic traditions while Trump was backed by right-wing Christian evangelicals intent on 'one religion, one god' for the world.

Trump's rhetoric was divisive, picking on one group or another, while Modi campaigned on the inclusive slogan of 'Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas.'

If there is any similarity it is this. Both Trump and Modi were hated by the entrenched media establishments and power centres who ran vicious campaigns against them.

As this charged American election cycle comes to an end, there are notes of caution for everyone involved.

For those Hindu Americans who supported Trump, on the basis of his recognising the threat posed by Islamic expansionism, a note of caution.

Trump may not do much at all but the genie of hate, once unbottled, may equally turn on them.

A section of Trump supporters are too ignorant or charged up to distinguish one brown man from another -- be careful what you wish for.

For the 'liberal' establishment too, there are lessons.

Did their sabotaging Bernie Sander' candidacy for establishment-favoured Hillary cost them the election?

Does the paradox of the Left's support for a right-wing Islam, which often manifests in death to atheists and gays and the burqa-clad imprisonment of women, undermine their 'progressive' claims?

In the end, the Trump story has just begun. Despite the campaign pronouncements no one really knows what a Trump presidency will bring.

Will he please the social conservatives or will he return to the more liberal views on abortion and other social issues he has espoused in the past?

Will he really throw away treaties or will the pragmatic business tycoon override the wily campaigner?

Will he clean up the 'corrupt system' that is beholden to special interests or will he quickly become one of them?

Will he build on the climate of fear or pull back from the interventionist legacy of successive Republican and Democratic governments?

Could he do the unthinkable and actually roll back the interventionist military-industrial complex and invest that money in education and communities that really need them?

In an election season that went beyond all logic, this Bernie supporter can still dream.

IMAGE: Then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump points to supporters at the end of his rally at the SNHU Arena on November 7, 2016, in Manchester, New Hampshire. Photograph: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

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Sankrant Sanu