Voting the 45th US president out of power was never going to be quiet or easy. Media outbursts over alleged electoral fraud and miscounts have never been more strident and frequent in US history. Facilitating mail-in ballots and other means of early voting caused an unprecedented rush of nearly 102 million voters to cast their ballots early this year. The urgency and doubts over the handling of different types of balloting procedures, the tensions and anxieties in anticipation of the results, and the anticipated clamour on the part of the international media to learn the results and the breakdowns combined to make the entire process fraught and raucous. Never before, since my first visit to the US in 1977, have I heard such ardent appeals to patience on voting day and the tallying days that followed.
Whatever the results that emerge after these exciting days, Donald Trump’s four years in the White House will not pass like wisps of clouds barely visible against the intense blue of a summer afternoon sky. Consider just the visual impact of that idiosyncratic personality from the world of business and billionaires who burst into the world of politics with a racket, not only heedless of the norms and conventions of political etiquette and speech, but determined to flout them with brazen spontaneity. As history books will undoubtedly record, Trump, the person and the president, listened only to that inner impulse to remain in the media spotlight and to court its attention even if more often hostile than sympathetic. As Bob Woodward was preparing Rage, his latest book on Trump, the president made it clear on several occasions during the nine hours of telephone and face-to-face interviews with Woodward that he knew the book was not going to say nice things about him, but he granted the interviews anyway. Trump was a moth to the eminent journalist’s flame.
But Trump was more than just the person or personality admired by millions despite his razor tongue, his political improprieties and his sometimes less than honest methods. He was a leader of an upswell of revolt against the ideas and attitudes that had prevailed in the US during the post-World War II era until the eve of his entrance into the White House. In dialectic theory the juxtaposition of a thesis with an antithesis yields a synthesis that takes humankind to the next level of evolution. “Trumpism” is that antithesis that emerged from the womb of the American liberal project to steer the US and the rest of the world in a new direction and into other historical phases. Trumpism is that collection of words and deeds with which Trump held up an unflattering mirror to the US liberal world, forcing it to confront some hard and painful truths. It began with that carefully choreographed trip down the escalator of Trump Tower with his beautiful wife to announce his candidacy in 2015. His tirade against Latin Americans not only shocked the press into a frenzy, which worked to keep the media spotlight trained on him 24/7; they posed a crucial question: Would the nation that was founded on immigrants from the old world to the new continue to open its arms to immigrants forever? Or was it time to mature and apply more clearly defined immigration calculations like other advanced nations? As for subsidiary questions concerning the wall and dreamers, these are details. In other words, this was not just about opposing current policies but also about the core American essence which, according to Trumpism, had to be changed so that America could become “great again”.
Of course, immigration was not the only question that proposed a fate antithetical to the American liberal dream. There was a whole gamut of issues that fixed a glare on American liberal ideals and prevailing notions of political correctness. They questioned US military involvement and commitment to international organisations and conventions abroad as much as they railed against Obamacare and for “law and order” at home. This was less a movement that harked back to distant darker times than it was a response to a socioeconomic reality that had left large swathes of the American public alienated and unable to express their views and preferences for fear of being ostracised as reactionary, intolerant and unable to sympathise with others. Trumpism was essentially a response to the feelings and demands of a social base that remained loyal to Trump through all the political carnivals and in the voting booths, up to the last minute.
Trump’s rise to power in the US gave great impetus to similar phenomena abroad. The EU, a main facet of globalisation and a historical model for engineering the international order so as to end war and conflict, was forced to deal with the UK’s departure from the union, a process no less electrifying than what Trump was doing on the other side of the Atlantic. Boris Johnson in the UK, Modi in India, Bolsonaro in Brazil and others epitomised political trends working against the prevalent global grain. Trump was the standard bearer. Was the Covid-19 pandemic the nemesis of this phenomenon when it pitted these leaders before a test for which they were ill equipped? Was the fact that they became infected one after the other the fatal blow to their cause? Historical dialectics do not work this way. The synthesis of antitheses is an ongoing process and its assorted chronological and material details, manifestations and component parts make it a complex process. We do not fully shed the old the moment we arrive at the new. Rather, we find ourselves facing new combinations, some of which may unfold in the US again.
Trumpism will not fade just because there is a new president, regardless of his name or party. The main junctures of US history, from the post-revolutionary period through the Civil War and two world wars, to the Cold War and the period following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, involved interactions between the past, present and a future that heralded unprecedented technologies. Trump’s Twitter mania was no anomaly; it was a concrete manifestation of a historical dialectic in which Trumpism unveiled itself.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly