Home >Opinion >Columns >We need not miss Trump even on the US’s China policy

It is hard to use the words “public service" and “Trump" in the same sentence, but there have been many people in the current administration working there to save the US from a presidency descending into chaos—and because of their interest in framing government policy. They have been a natural constituency for Maggie Haberman, the New York Times’ White House correspondent who in scoop after scoop has demonstrated she is the best reporter on the beat in recent years. After the results in Pennsylvania made it clear that President-elect Joseph Biden had won the election, Haberman recounted on a podcast, “It’s hard for me to describe the number of texts I have got from people close to the president who are not sad, who are relieved (because) they did not want to live through another four years of a Trump presidency."

It is almost a quarter of a century since Fareed Zakaria warned, in Foreign Affairs, of the rise of illiberal democracies. His warning predates the fake news that circulates on social media. And, in the context of the US, the article was too early for it required the combined effects of China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001 and the global financial crisis (GFC) in 2008-09 to undermine the foundations of democracy in America. China’s WTO accession accelerated the hollowing out of US industry because it was cheaper to buy goods from China, thus adding to job losses from technological innovation that resulted in fewer people working in factories. Policy responses to the GFC then magnified the increase in wealth of the very rich.

The revolving door of people from Wall Street who moved to the US Treasury—like Henry Paulson, who was central to the bailout of investment banks in 2008—made it impossible to ensure that US banks paid a punitive price for the crisis. Moreover, the quantitative easing used by the Fed to boost growth in the aftermath of 2008 often leads to K-shaped recoveries that favour the rich: Stock markets are prime beneficiaries, as we see in India currently, after the Reserve Bank opened its liquidity floodgates in response to the covid downturn.

All of this proved tinder for President Donald Trump’s politics of hatred. The lies of his presidency have made many of us forget that the reality-TV show host’s political avatar took shape only after 2011, when he repeatedly claimed that President Barack Obama had not been born in the United States, arguing variously that Obama’s birth certificate was a “fraud" and encouraging supporters to “hack" the then president’s college records to find his “real" birthplace. (Obama had released his birth certificate back in 2008, which showed he was born in Hawaii.)

But the genius of Trump was to create a tsunami of support from Americans who were angry that the country had elected and re-elected an African-American president. When, prior to his election in 2016, Trump boasted that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York and his loyal base would still support him, he was not exaggerating. After having presided over the developed world’s weakest response to the covid pandemic, how Trump’s political journey started is relevant because it helps explain why he received as many as 71 million votes in this year’s presidential election.

Trump’s former strategist and multi-millionaire Steve Bannon liked to argue that this base signalled a revolt against the elites, a line of argument parroted by some Indian commentators with a similar lack of irony. The term “pluto-populism", however, better describes the phenomenon: A movement where the less well off vote in favour of those who represent the very rich and are rich themselves. Resentment against African-Americans and minorities in general, stirred by the excesses of political correctness, has been the Trojan horse used by Trump and the Republicans to gain political support from working-class Americans to push through tax cuts and seek the dismantling of Obama’s healthcare policies. Tellingly, Trump supporters frequently describe Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris as that “nasty" (woman), just as Trump does when describing articulate women opponents. He has even called Harris “a monster".

Given Trump’s unashamed racism and sexism, the mostly morality-neutral discussion of what India might have gained from his re-election has been distressing. Perhaps, as the Carnegie Endowment’s Ashley Tellis told The Wire on 11 November, battles over India might increase if Democrats in Congress raise the issues of Kashmir and the Citizenship Amendment Act, but that was a risk anyway. A Biden presidency will certainly mean more support for multilateral institutions, which is a good thing. Rudra Chaudhuri, author of Forged in Crisis, a book that underlines the pragmatism of US-India relations over the past several decades, told me “an ecological recovery" of the US’s past record of supporting international institutions would be central to the new administration’s international reset. On trade, Biden might try to widen the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and it would be interesting to see if non-Pacific Ocean countries like India are drawn into its fold. Where the Trump administration did the world a service was in focusing a harsh spotlight on an increasingly aggressive China, but Biden is likely to continue that battle. Ultimately, Indo-US relations are a sideshow. Biden’s diplomatic skill at strengthening alliances against China is where India stands to gain the most.

Rahul Jacob is a Mint columnist and a former Financial Times foreign correspondent.

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