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2016: The Order of the Outsider

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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Subversion or salvation?

Certain things were not supposed to happen. They did not make any sense in a world where the rational and the factual still prevailed in spite of the subversive in the arena, or that’s what we have been told ad nauseum by people we thought should know. The conventional moralities of politics were not to be set aside by forces whose origin we are still struggling to trace. How on earth did we fail to feel the swell beneath, the telluric accumulation of anger on which we treaded so casually, so smug in our beliefs? Why did the planet shift so drastically, reshaping the matrix of power to suit the insurgent? Did Atlas shrug, considering

that we have been told they are only reading Ayn Rand in the towers of Manhattan? It was, in retrospect, such a time that some of us lost faith, some of us regained it, some of us felt disarmed, some were thrilled to be rearmed, and it was the kind of change that looked as if history chose the subversive to distribute salvation in the year of 2016.

And salvation, as we saw in the month of November, assumed the shape of the orange man. Trump was the word that shattered the well- preserved mythologies of the free world. The new kind of apolitical politician who descended from the black tower of American capitalism did not play by the rulebook of others. The other apolitical politician we used to know in the last revolutionary glow of the past century did make a great deal of truth, for that was a time when the order of the lie was falling by the wayside across Eastern Europe, a time when freedom was too precious a thing to be left to the care of professional politicians. The new one lied for the sake of greatness, he promised religious cleansing for the sake of safety, he divided humanity into good, bad, ugly and outright evil, and he, like all other revolutionaries before him, believed more in the loftiness of his calling than the wisdom of the street—or the salon.

Was the idea of Donald Trump the exuberance of an irrational year? After all, he was not just the man of the year, but the man who spawned the word of the year as well. ‘Post-truth’, canonised by Oxford Dictionaries, has already been translated as truth according to the Donald, which means the emotional prevails over the factual, the irrational precedes the actual. Here too, Trumpism is not entirely original. As I argued earlier in these pages, the lie of the state was a revolutionary prerequisite in another time in history, a time when the size of greatness was equal to that of unmarked graveyards, and a time when heaven on earth was communism’s answer to Christianity. For the post-truth president, too, suspension of the factual was a necessary condition for the retrieval of the lost America. Nobody seems to have noticed the fall of the fact checker—the busiest body during the presidential debates—as Trump bypassed truth to tap the emotional reservoir of a disenchanted country. In 2016, the urge for the alternative was too strong to be curtailed by the cracked morality of politics as usual.

Glossary 2016Trump marked the most spectacular moment in the evolutionary saga of the outsider- insurgent. In Europe, the middle ground was shrinking at such a pace that traditional parties from either side of the ideological aisle began to lose faith in their own utility. In Greece, Spain, the Netherlands, France, and even in Germany, the retailer of salvation provided the ‘alternative’. Resentment became the new religion of the disenfranchised, and the old Left or Right, too cosy in their calcified ideologies, could not offer anything beyond rehashed wonkery or platitudes. Call him whatever—extremist, populist, nativist—the new dream seller made the future accessible, even if it looked unipolar and exclusivist.

Before Trump, Brexit was the bang that shook the world—and liberated the greatness-crazy islander. The cosmopolitan liberal and the Establishmentarian conservative both railed against the Little Englander, and warned of the existential dangers of a breakaway Britain. Europe’s destiny was ours too, said the Remain-elites, and solitary glory would only result in a shrinking market, fewer jobs and diminished influence on the global stage. The sentiment of the countryside was different, and they listened to a new English pastoral envisioned by the greatness seekers. There again, it was the Establishmentarian versus the outsider, the globalist versus the nativist, the integrationist versus the isolationist. And there too, both the traditional Left and the Right misread the mind of the angrier middle England.

Across the world, in the era of affluence, a new underclass was rising to claim their place in the sun. They were the new wretched on some of the most privileged parts of the earth, the losers in an unequal world, abandoned by parties that took them for granted once. The Labour party lost the labour class in the UK and made the ascent easier for the UKIP; and across the Atlantic, the Democrats were fast losing the rust belt, and the post-Reagan Republican Party did not represent the ideas and aspirations of Conservative America. It was not the death of truth but the death of politics that heralded the outsider.

There was one outsider, even while in power, who did resist the temptation of the Establishment, and India 2016 belonged to him. Power only added to the detachment of the ruler-ascetic, whose idea of India continued to inspire the faithful and intimidate the adversaries. Modi on the stump revelled in drama. He was angry prophet and impatient moderniser; he wanted to be the sole custodian of our future. In power, he was in no hurry, and there seemed to be a method in his slowness, in his steadiness. Then came the big bang: his midnight knock that announced the possibilities of a cleaner, moral political economy. He was still engaged in redeeming the system he had inherited, and he could do so only by being himself—the outsider led by his intuitions rather than by the instincts of politics as usual. Demonetisation was more than a war on black money; it was a rejoinder to the last vestiges of crony capitalism that thrived under previous ‘reformist’ regimes. He was striking at the fundamentals of the Establishment—entrenchment and entitlement. Modi was the outsider rearmed.

It was the year in which the outsider came in many avatars: the subversive who travelled back in time to retrieve national mythologies; the insurrectionist who would not be denied his kingdom; the political nihilist who moved from the fringe to the centre; and the ascetic who wanted to unearth the ill-gotten wealth of the nation. The year 2016 indulged the nationalist who reimagined freedom.