The American Dream 2016

Trump and the American Dream 2016

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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The newest fairytale of democracy carries within it the ominous iconography of change

Once upon a time in the United States of America, there was a billionaire businessman called Donald John Trump, whose ambition was as towering as the buildings he built. It was an era of disillusion and anger, and the impatience of the silent majority, White and working class, remained invisible to media elites and the political establishment. It was a time when the highest echelons of power were steeped in a cosy consensus, unaware of the resentment seething beneath, and with no access to the deepest recesses of the popular mind, scarred and ripe for revolt. Then the Donald happened, as an unlikely pretender to the throne. First they tried to laugh him off. Then they recoiled at his vulgarism, his ignorance, his sexism, his racism, his very idea of America—and he always played the part to horrifying perfection. Abandoned by the priesthood of his own party, rattled at every stage by the campaign machine of his opponent, ridiculed by columnists, the Donald refused to step aside and make way for the entitled and the enlightened. In the year of 2016, in November, after a scandalous campaign, the Donald stormed the White House, shattered the last certainties of conventional politics. He reaped the fears of a lost people and promised greatness—and happiness.

He won the argument for change, and history shifted. The remains of that victory, which defied both psephology and op-ed sociology, even after all these years, continue to determine the political choices of America, the freedom of which still allows many variations of Trump to play rebel and redeemer, usurper and saviour—or the revolutionary who descends from a marbled penthouse in Manhattan to the consciousness of the ghettoised middle America. It was a long time ago.

Now it is time for America to bind the wounds of division. I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be President for all Americans

This fable is inevitable in the future of politics—and of the United States of America. For beyond the algorithms that misread the mood and the punditry that was more about demonising than deciphering, lie the new terms of political engagement in a world more polarised than ever before. On November 8th, America became the pivot of that world, and ironists are likely to call it a well-deserved honour for the only superpower with global influence. This honour, the pessimists and shell-shocked liberals may argue, only brings out the innate inauthenticity of popular wisdom, the shattering crudity of the visceral vote, the tragedy of democracy itself. It is something else, raw and volatile. It is a force from below, from the farthest regions of disenchantment where ideologies have lost their relevance, and where the politically dispossessed have made the old division of Left and Right redundant. Trump’s moment is something more than a Republican victory (in spite of the conservative Brahmins and even the right wing media) or Democratic defeat (in spite of mass endorsement for being anti-Trump). It is politics reborn in the ruins of the old party apparatus. The Trump constituency of what Hillary had famously dismissed as “the basket of deplorables”, ideally, should have been her own party’s basket of dependables. In the familiar media narrative, these nameless legion, semi-literate provincials left behind by the march of capitalism, are easy prey for any demagogue selling heaven in the retail market of realpolitik. They are the nativists fed on paranoia, robbed by immigrants in a country with porous borders. It’s into this realm of fear and foreboding that the outsider enters, talking about the future in a language that they understand instantly. The formulaic politics of American bipolarity cannot comprehend this subversive lingua. As Trump looms, politics as we know dies—slowly, steadily.

The new politician’s calling card is anti-politics. He is not necessarily the apolitical politician in the mould of, say, Václav Havel, a dissident ‘living in truth’. The new one could be a beer-swigging Englishman or a priapic American, and we call him outsider, Establishment-slayer, a kitschy neophyte, or a fantasy peddler in the unreported swamplands of globalisation. When he made an appearance in places such as Greece and Spain, we didn’t pay much attention. We thought he was just an ideological extremist. In the last English summer, from my London bubble, I saw the countryside erupting to his call for freedom and greatness, and Brexit was a daring repudiation of the intrusive other—and the restoration of a perfumed past. Still, it was not as elemental as Trumpistan; it enjoyed a certain amount of blue-blooded conservative support. It was, in the end, more than a Farage or a Johnson. Trump, the man who took the American Dream from the gilded palace to the ghettoes, unlike any one of his usurper colleagues elsewhere, is an amazing individual story that has broken every moral tenet in the book. His vulgarism, his soundbites of hate, his misogyny (read the papers and you will get more), even as they added to his unpresidential qualities on the stump, were the pardonable frailties of being human in the eyes of ‘his people’. He built an alternative, no matter whether it was simulated reality, while his opponent, with the weary prosaicness of a policy wonk, could only offer the solace of the status quo. In the age of pluralism—political, cultural, racial— he has brought individual exceptionalism centre stage, and that is what nativists and rearmed nationalists do in a world where blurred identities are seen as virtues of globalisation. A Greater America, a fortified America, is also an exclusivist America, a place somewhere in the dream of the abandoned. Trump promises to empower them. He wants to return America to the Americans who couldn’t afford the dream. It’s the nationalist, not the socialist, who leads the new class war.

And no war unites. Wars make the division starker, the chasm deeper. Eight years ago in another November, it was revolution time in America when change was pure poetry, and as a journalist assigned to cover the event, I remember listening to Barack Obama, invoking Martin Luther King, giving his victory speech.“ If there is anyone out there who still doubts America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders are alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is our answer,” said America’s first African American elected to the White House. Then he was the change America sought, the dream America dreamt, and he, ever the prophet of reconciliation, promised there would be no “red America or blue America but only the United States of America.” Eight years on, after the poetry of Candidate Obama turned into the tentative prose of President Obama, reconciliation remains a distant piece of stump flourish. The cruellest of ironies on America’s election night was that a Trump was all that was left of Obama’s legacy. The newest fairy tale of democracy carries within it the ominous iconography of change. So even Trump will pass.