US liberals should take comfort from rest of us

US liberals have lost to an authoritarian populist, a man who sees himself as the only answer


US president-elect Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters
US president-elect Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters

Welcome, American liberals. Welcome to the special torment of discovering that you do not know your country.

You thought, no doubt, you were exempt—immune from the shocks that liberals throughout the world have felt in recent years. And I can understand why: Because while you have suffered defeats at the hands of Reagan and the Bushes, and it seemed at times like your country would bend back the arc of history, it never really did.

But this time, you know, is different. This is a different sort of defeat, and a different sort of victor. You, too, have lost to an authoritarian populist, a man who sees himself as the only answer. And you can find no handle with which to criticize him, for the weapons of reason and ridicule and horror that have always worked before seem to have been rendered useless and impotent.

Welcome, as I said, for this is how liberals across the world have felt as their countries one by one turned to populist strongmen who evoked the virtues of a vanished past, and who promised to vanquish evildoers and globalist elites in order to restore those glories. Welcome to the pain of the citizens of Istanbul, of New Delhi, and of London; of the embattled liberals of Russia or of Israel. In a day, you feel as if your countrymen have become strangers to you and your fond expectation of progress revealed as childlike fantasy. How can you cope with a president whose very existence is a repudiation of all you have hitherto believed?

Well, you will cope. We all have. And perhaps it will help if I share a few hints as to how.

First, do not tell yourself fanciful stories about what has happened. Do not seek to blunt the edges of your realization. Yes, your country is not what you imagined it to be. All around you, hopeful fellow-travelers will answer the questions this loss poses through the only story they are comfortable with: They will speak of “economic anxiety” and of globalization. You should know better. You should know that it was not the poorest who voted for the demagogue; they never do, and didn’t in this election.

Here in India, Narendra Modi’s sweeping victory in 2014 was about nationalism and pride. It was about jobs, too —as was Donald Trump’s. But not in any way that should comfort you: Jobs and pride go together. People seek both, but pride is more potent and easier to deliver. In India, we have learned that when an authoritarian promises jobs, he actually promises status, and when he promises status, he promises pride.

So do not give in to attempts, from left and right, to legitimize an ethno-nationalist “take our country back” sentiment as a product of economics instead. Do not revisit the truths you have learned about progress. Trade and globalization have delivered long years of growth and cheap goods to the US, new jobs and a new way of living, just as economic liberalization in India has lifted millions out of abject poverty.

Revisit instead the assumption that people themselves are inevitably becoming more inclusive and tolerant. Do not deny that some of your fellow citizens feel the stress of dislocation and of dispossession; after all, working to address that is why you are a liberal. But do not for a moment deny they have freely chosen to blame that stress on those who have not caused it—Muslims, foreigners, immigrants, women, those even poorer. To deny that choice would be condescending. To ignore that choice would be fatal. The choice needs to be fought, not wished away; the error corrected, not accepted.

Do not run to the left, or compromise with the right. Do not hanker after the reassuring ideological purity of your own populists -- for if they had any real answers, they and not their cousins on the right would’ve defeated you. Both, after all, hate you equally.

And do not seek to cozy up to ethno-nationalist politics; you will not defeat the authoritarian at his own game. In India, the social democratic Congress Party, roundly defeated in 2014, has tried both in opposition—sometimes embracing left-wing economics and sometimes rounding on Muslims. As a consequence, it’s become an even less powerful party today than when it was thrashed two years ago. Be rational where the authoritarian is not; focus on progressive policy, not on words; defend the weak, even if they did not turn out for you. Be an alternative, not a weak clone or a has-been.

And do not deny the ruler his legitimacy. Praise him when praise is due—lavishly, if necessary. This is not only just; it is wise. Many such leaders crave respect and recognition above all. Think of Recep Tayyip Erdogan; compare his first term with what he is now, and learn how leaders who feel they receive no cooperation are freed to follow their instincts. And seek out the bipartisan policies that might make your country more liberal—those that encourage people in left-behind states to move to solidly blue ones, those that expand access and opportunity and education. Compromise on policy, not on principle.

You might never feel as good again as you did a few days ago; because you now understand more fully what your country is. But you will eventually feel better. And if you keep fighting to improve your country, one day your country will return to you. Bloomberg

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