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Trump may have been defeated but Trumpism certainly has not

The social and economic forces that led to his rise haven’t subsided and Democrats may not be able to change America much

While many the world over celebrate the putative political demise of US President Donald J. Trump, it would be premature to write off the political movement that has crystallized around him. As others have too, let us call it “Trumpism". At the time of filing this, it is true that Trump’s chances appear slim of overturning the election to the presidency of Democratic candidate former US vice-president Joseph R. Biden Jr. through sundry legal challenges.

But, whether in office or not, Trump remains a lodestar for many in the Republican Party, and his influence over them, as well as the support of the loyal base that catapulted him to office in 2016, is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. While votes are still being counted in a few states, it appears that Biden will secure about 52% of the popular vote as against 48% or so for Trump. In other words, while a little more than half the country’s voters celebrate, a bit less than half commiserate.

Trump’s combination of ethno- and economic nationalism, a disdain for received expertise and the liberal media and cultural establishment, a transactional, non-principled approach to international affairs, a cult of personality, and a whiff of an authoritarian and capricious leadership style have proved a potent and, many would say, deadly cocktail. What is more, it has been appreciated by would-be autocratic and populist leaders around the world, who seem to have learnt lessons from Trumpism to apply at home.

The economic, sociological, political, and cultural currents that swept Trump to power were gathering long before his rise, and they will persist long after his fall. To pretend otherwise would be folly. I earned the ire of more than a few liberal colleagues and friends when I opined, back in the spring of 2016, that the liberal demonization of Trump was likely to backfire (“Demonizing Donald Trump won’t work", 6 June 2016). While that opinion was not popular, it proved to be correct. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that my other prediction, that Trump, if elected, would tack to the political centre, was entirely falsified.)

Likewise, after the declaration on 7 November by most major media organizations that Biden would be the winner, there was an outpouring of what can only be described as a triumphalist and revanchist gloating by many who despise the US President. Given Trump’s own take-no-prisoners approach to political or other enemies, and his perhaps tactical but entirely reprehensible tilting to Caucasian nationalists during his time in office, this is perfectly understandable; and, as the saying goes, turnabout is fair play.

Understandable it may be, but it will only serve to embolden and entrench Trump’s unwavering base. Much like 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate allusion to Trump’s “basket of deplorables", liberal scorn is not going to melt away the forces that gave rise to and nourished Trumpism; witness, for instance, condescension toward, and denigration of, the infelicitously named Four Seasons Total Landscaping in Philadelphia, and the portrayal of the social and cultural topos that it represents as benighted beyond redemption.

Moreover, the tug-of-war between the centrist and leftist factions within the Democratic Party, if it tips in favour of the latter, is unlikely to be electorally fructuous for it, either in the mid-term elections of 2022 or in the next presidential election in 2024—especially if, as it appears likely, Biden does not run again, which would mean the centrist incumbent’s gravitas would be absent.

Republicans, too, will face a day of reckoning before long. Having made the Faustian bargain of embracing Trump, centrist members of the Grand Old Party are going to find it difficult to escape the snare of his embrace. Much as the Democrats are torn between the left and the centre, the Republicans, in particular their senior leaders, must decide if they want to reclaim their old ground of centrist and sober conservatism, or drift further to the populist and ethno-nationalistic right. If both parties are polarized to their respective extreme positions, the hollowing out of the political centre will leave many middle-of-the road voters of either or no party affiliation the unsavoury choice of picking between the ideologies of two problematic fringe groups.

There is, however, much to celebrate. Despite the prognostications of doomsayers, the election, the largest in American history, went off smoothly, without the widespread violence that some had expected from a potentially bruised and aggrieved losing side. Trump’s extravagant claims of widespread electoral fraud have, thus far, remained largely fact-free, and such legal challenges as he musters will work their way through the system over the coming few weeks. Unless, however, something extraordinary happens, it seems all but certain that Biden will be anointed the next president on inauguration day, 20 January 2021.

America’s partners and foes abroad might expect a Biden presidency to steady the ship, but it would be unrealistic to expect a wholesale, overnight shift in policy. In particular, an adversarial relationship with China is likely to continue, although probably cloaked in greater diplomatic niceties. And, despite all of the ink spilt, not much of fundamental substance is likely to change in the US-India relationship, for good or ill.

The real question that remains is: After Trump, whither Trumpism? The answer is that much depends.

Vivek Dehejia is a Mint columnist.

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