Trump is part of a global trend of leaders, who thrive on their larger-than-life personality cult as a winning formula, a trend that spans both autocracies and democracies
The US presidential election may have gone down to the wire – the final verdict could now be settled in the courts – but one thing is undeniable: whatever the eventual result, US President Donald Trump has once again confounded the media and pollsters with his strong showing. On voting day, the poll of polls gave the Democratic Party challenger Joe Biden a comfortable lead of eight per cent, well outside the margin of error. In all the key battleground states, Biden was holding firm. So why did so many seasoned commentators and pollsters get it so wrong for the second presidential election in a row? Quite apart from the hazards of predicting electoral behaviour in uncertain times with millions of mail ballots a further complication, there is an X factor that deserves a stern examination: let’s call it the ‘echo chamber’ bias of the chattering classes.
As a boisterously unapologetic egotist, Trump sharply divided public opinion. Which is why the spectre of defeat for the White House incumbent raised hopes amongst liberal groups in America and across the world that a Trump exit would mark a significant blow to the right wing project of divide and rule and restore civility and decency as core values. A nation sharply divided by race and class desperately needed a healing touch, someone to provide a sense of comfort in troubling times. As the great polariser, Trump was seen as singularly unfit for this task. What this narrative failed to recognise is that while this viewpoint was widely shared by ‘people like us’, it was frowned upon by ‘people like them’. A heightened ‘us’ versus ‘them’ political discourse can queer the pitch. Elections, after all, aren’t decided on WhatsApp groups of like-minded voluble people but amongst the vast multitude of the so-called silent voters.
In a sense, the more Trump was lampooned and vilified by his critics, the more his core base got solidified. Where his personalised style of leadership and brazen disregard for institutions was rightly criticised for being anti-democratic, it also boosted his appeal amongst those who are impatient with the rules of engagement as defined by the traditional political elites. Trump is part of a global trend of leaders, who thrive on their larger-than-life personality cult as a winning formula, a trend that spans both autocracies and democracies: from Narendra Modi to Recep Erdogan, from Boris Johnson to Jair Bolsanaro, from Vladimir Putin to Xi Jinping, these leaders have been propelled forward by their carefully sculpted image of political muscularity. Their narrative is distinctly similar too: heavy doses of populist nationalism where the promise of national rejuvenation lies at the heart of the allure of the decisive, tough talking demagogue.
But even amongst the strongmen leaders, Trump has always been a bit of an outlier. He is the showman-businessman, who views politics as another stage on which he can strike a mega-deal: a Big Boss-like reality TV spectacle where he alone decides the rules of the game. He has been almost contemptuous of any political group identity, including at times even his own Republican Party. He is ‘sui generis’ even in the nature of his narcissism. While all strongmen leaders are guilty at some stage or the other of circumventing and short-circuiting institutional processes, Trump is arguably the most brazen. His repeated confrontations with the US Congress, the media and even his own staff members reveals a bizarrely unpredictable mind whose sheer hubris convinces him that he can even get away with taking ad-hoc policy decisions on Twitter at midnight.
The COVID-19 crisis in particular has brought out the worst in Trump’s erratic approach to governance, bordering on callousness. That the occupant of the White House could so recklessly disregard the fallout of a global pandemic and refuse to wear a mask despite all the medical and scientific evidence before him suggests a mindset that is not just irrational, but also malevolent. Trapped in a delusionary world of personal invincibility, he was simply unwilling to even listen to sage advice from top-class professionals: it was almost as if the virus did not exist in the parallel universe Trump had created around himself.
And yet, on the other big concern of 2020 – the economic slowdown -Trump was successful in sending out the message that he was far better placed than his political rival to get the growth curve to rise once again. America’s COVID count maybe unconscionable but the country has been able to pull out of a potential recessionary spiral faster than expected. With the economy reviving – latest figures indicate a sharp decline in unemployment levels too – Trump was able to spread optimism that the American spirit of free enterprise would triumph eventually.
The strongman image, in that sense, is both asset and liability. People still remain attracted to leaders who we think will get the job done, whose buoyant persona exudes a sense of self-confidence and authority. At times, their demeanour displays bluster rather than expertise, false bravado rather than concrete action, and yet they retain an aura of indestructibility. Trump’s shrill rhetoric and openly divisive campaign is dangerous for a plural society but it also allows a canny politician to prey on fears and xenophobic prejudices of a ‘white’ America. To what extent can these diverse popular sentiments be captured without compromising on one’s own personal biases is critical while judging the mood of a nation. The bubble in which many of us live, especially on social media, has created the distinct possibility where we may actually be carried away by only tracking those who share our ideological beliefs above all else.
In his latest best-seller ‘Rage’, journalist Bob Woodward of Watergate fame decodes the Trump presidency in telling fashion: “All presidents have a large obligation to inform, warn, protect, to define goals and the true national interest. It should be a truth-telling response to the world, especially in a crisis. Trump has, instead, enshrined personal impulse as a governing principle of his presidency. When his performance as a President is taken in its entirety, I can reach only one conclusion: Trump is the wrong man for the job!” Woodward is not wrong in his assessment: it’s just that in a deeply divided nation not every American shares his view. Unfortunately, smug pollsters and a partisan media never reconciled to this stark reality of divided states of America.
Post-script: In the first week of May 2019, after crisscrossing the country for weeks, I did a short video blog where I forecast 300 plus seats for the BJP in the general elections. A senior journalist called to say, “I see you too have sold out, can’t you see the anti-Modi mood in the country!” After the election results, I sent the journalist a pointed message: “The mood of the country is not decided in your WhatsApp groups but in the dusty tracks of ‘real’ India.” Ditto with America.