Donald Trump was elected partly because of the quirks of the American Electoral College system, which can undermine the will of the majority.
Living in Trump’s America is an unsettling experience for many, myself included. The continual demonstrations of incompetence, corruption and malevolence that emerge from the ruling clique can cause one to laugh, cry, be angry, or despair, depending on the particular case and one’s mood. Donald Trump was elected partly because of the quirks of the American Electoral College system, which can undermine the will of the majority. But he received a large chunk of votes, and did not lose, whereas there have been past elections where left-leaning Democratic candidates, in particular, went down to heavy defeats.
Many of those who voted for Trump did so while metaphorically holding their noses, but his core supporters revelled in his message of nativism, which included a heavy dose of racism—thus, even non-mainstream Americans are subject to his jibes. Trump’s questioning of the birthplace of his predecessor is one example, but there have been many instances where he has attacked Americans by birth who do not happen to conform to his narrow idea of Americanness.
A situation where economic inequality has been increasing, social mobility has been declining, and there are major changes taking place in the nature of work and the balance of global economic power allowed Trump to play on the fears of many Americans, to turn those fears into aggression, and generate passionate support for his promise of fixing the woes of those left behind in the new America.
The irony is that Trump’s policies are designed to benefit his family, his cronies, and others in his wealth class. Meanwhile, the factors that are causing the “dualization” of America’s economy are being neglected or even exacerbated. Tax cuts for the rich will make it harder to repair the country’s crumbling physical infrastructure. Pushing on behalf of for-profit providers of education (a narrower category than private, since many in that group are non-profits) will make it harder to level the playing field for acquiring human capital. Even in areas such as health care and criminal justice, Trump’s policies are tilting things away from those who are already disadvantaged.
It has also been disheartening to see how the Republican Party leadership have fallen squarely behind this mayhem. Of course, the recent track record of the party has been very much consonant with Trump’s tax cuts and reductions in public services. Even racism has had a comfortable, if previously more hidden, existence in the party. But the party leadership’s lack of principle in its desire to hold on to power has been disheartening, to say the least.
None of what is happening in Trump’s America is unique. Similar things are happening in other countries, and have happened in the past. The capitulation in the 1930s of much of Germany’s population to a racist, nationalist leader and ideology is an extreme case, but shades of populism have infected many countries, including much of Latin America. These brands of populism claim to represent the poor, but only benefit an elite that monopolises power. These regimes have enormous social and economic costs, even without war and physical destruction.
What is unusual about Trump’s America (though not out of line with events in some European nations) is that the discontent he has channelled into destructiveness is occurring at high levels of average income. Perhaps this just reminds us that relativity matters, both with respect to those around us, and with respect to the past and future expectations. In all those dimensions, there is a chunk of the American population that is deeply disaffected. The country’s opioid crisis is one symptom of that (though that, too, has also been driven by a kind of moral corruption in the drug industry and medical profession).
America’s justice system may curb the worst excesses of Trump’s America. The coming elections may also be an opportunity to stop the rot. India is also on its way to elections. One can see the rhetoric heating up in claims about economic performance under different regimes. It is probably true, however, that both ruling coalitions have not been that far apart in pursuing positive economic policies—what has come to be a perpetual process of economic “reform”. India now has stronger policies and institutions in areas such as monetary policy and tax policy. Financial sector reforms have also been pursued consistently over many different governments.
All of this is good, when the political debate is about finer details of economic policy and progress. That leaves the issue of how different political parties and groupings in India treat matters of difference and diversity, how they tackle inequalities of ethnicity and gender, how they handle questions of general welfare, where “general” is not restricted to any subset of India’s population. Trump’s America parallels the worst of Indian politics and society. America’s citizens, including those who manage its core institutions of justice and democracy, have a chance to reset the nation’s course. What happens in America over the next few months will have some useful lessons for India’s citizens, including its elites. Readers may reflect on these possible lessons for themselves.
The author is Professor of Economics, University of California, Santa Cruz