Over the past couple of weeks, the Donald Trump campaign for the US presidency has suffered a series of blows, the likes of which usually tend to end presidential campaigns for good.
First, the self-proclaimed billionaire was bested by Hillary Clinton in the first presidential debate; following which Trump went into one of his periodic social media meltdowns, engaging a former Miss Universe contestant Alicia Machado in an ungainly Twitter war, which ended with the official Republican nominee for the US presidency encouraging the general public to ‘check out’ Machado’s non-existent sex tape.
This was quickly followed by news that in the early 1990s Trump’s casino business had incurred almost a billion dollars in losses and that he had used these losses to escape paying federal taxes for almost 20 years.
If this wasn’t enough, last Friday, the Washington Post released a video recording of Trump apparently boasting, using rather lewd language, of his penchant for harassing beautiful women, even if they were married, because he was a ‘star’. More embarrassing audio releases quickly followed, casting a rather dark shadow on Trump’s performance in the second presidential debate last Sunday.
Yet, even as pundits and politicians alike admit that the odds have swung in favour of Hillary Clinton post these events, not many have ventured to declare the race over. Politicos in the US know better than to write off Donald Trump - a man who has spent the past year defying conventional political wisdom and brushing aside his several inadequacies to convincingly win the Republican nomination and remain within striking distance of Hillary Clinton. The Trump train may or may not derail in the days to come but the fact remains that it is an almost inexplicable miracle that the man has managed to get this far.
It is not difficult to understand the perplexity with which the political class and journalists in the US view Donald Trump. This is a man who has won more votes during the Republican primaries than anyone before him.
Yet, he did so running a campaign which – for most part – was against the very core values which defined his party. Even a year ago, it would have been inconceivable for a party known for its social conservatism and open support for the free market to nominate a thrice married New York billionaire who has, among other things, ranted against globalisation, women, American war heroes, Hispanics and the Pope.
Though Trump is not the only one. . .
Lest we think the US is alone in this, let us look at two other similar examples. Most Britons – even Labour Party members and supporters – struggle to understand how it is that Jeremy Corbyn continues to be the leader of the Labour Party, winning the internal elections handsomely for the second time, when it would require just a sprinkling of common sense to see that, just by being his party’s presumptive prime ministerial nominee, Corbyn basically relegates his party to the opposition benches almost by default.
Closer to home, we have the case of Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Over the four odd years that the party has been around, Kejriwal and AAP have gone against every major platform that they had initially run on. The ‘fight against corruption’ plank has been unceremoniously dumped into the garbage bin – where it would presumably have found its old friends Anna Hazare, the Jan Lokpal, Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav for company.
Branded as a party for the common man, Kejriwal has devolved the AAP into a party for rabid Modi-haters. Kejriwal himself has morphed from the middle class IITian chief minister into an incorrigible dictator and publicity hound. The mess that Kejriwal and his cronies have unleashed in Delhi ideally should have ensured a swift end to the AAP’s national ambitions.
Yet, it seems as though the opposite may have happened. Pundit predicts – to varying degrees – that come the next round of assembly elections, there will be a definite increase in the AAP’s presence in both the Punjab and Goa legislative assemblies.
And while the leftist intelligentsia loath even a mention of any similarities between their blue-eyed boys – certainly Corbyn and, to a certain extent, Kejriwal – with Donald Trump, the similarities are too hard to miss.
First, all three have – for better or worse (mostly worse) – recast the image of their own parties in that of their own.
Within the AAP, the Kejriwal personality cult and its obedient followers have cast away the Leftist urges which were prevalent during the party’s early days. No more is the AAP a haven for the larger Leftist ecosystem looking for political play. It now exists - much like its unquestioned leader - as a political force whose sole ideology is to grab power at any cost; not even shirking away from encouraging Khalistani elements in Punjab or questioning the integrity of the Indian Armed Forces.
Similarly, both Trump and Corbyn have orchestrated nothing less than intellectual hijacks of their respective party’s agendas.
Trump and his railings have transformed the Republican Party – traditionally the home for religious and fiscal conservatives of all hues – into one which is significantly alienated from Latinos, African Americans, minorities and women. Corbyn, on the other hand, has taken a Labour Party – which dominated the UK political scene under the moderate Tony Blair – and turned it into the loony Marxist, unelectable rubble it used to be in the pre-Blair years.
And while the pursuit of ideological purity – if you may call it that – might have its own supporters, the fact remains that the likes of Kejriwal, Trump and Corbyn have only served to make the political atmosphere more toxic and negate any chance of proper governance.
Yet, however so dangerous a partisan political climate may be, what could be even more harmful for the general public maybe the other major commonality between these personalities – their inclination to unabashedly pander to the populist urges of their respective electorates.
Whether it is Kejriwal encouraging Delhi-ites to default on electricity bills or Trump proposing to build a wall to keep out Mexicans or Corbyn’s promise of 500 billion pounds of government spending, each of these are plainly unworkable fantasies which play to the fears and insecurities of their respective bases.
Such promises also serve to put political opponents on the backfoot – experienced politicians would find it extremely difficult to match them with a straight face and if they decide not to, they would still find it enormously challenging to explain economic or social intricacies to angry mobs, thereby conceding the contest even before the ballots are cast.
Even so, the real danger is not about what happens during elections, but after. The groundswell of rage which powers the likes of Trump will not subside post an electoral victory. The expectation from their leaders to fulfil their absurd promises will still remain.
The inevitable failure of the populists to fulfil their fanciful promises might result in one of two reactions from the public.
The first would be a return to normalcy. Understanding that maverick, outsider candidates and parties are not all that they are cranked up to be, the people might return to their traditional political camps all the wiser and less likely to be conned again.
The second scenario is rather more worrisome. The angry mob, which looked towards Trump and Co as their last hope against a system which they perceive to be unfair, might just get angrier. This could be a reaction which could hit at the very credibility of the democratic process and open up a Pandora’s Box of social unrest – the likes of which most modern societies could very well do without.
This writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the twitter handle @shankarpraful
Praful Shankar is a political enthusiast and tweets at @shankarpraful.
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