No one can quite figure out Donald Trump. When he began his campaign, he convinced people he was racist towards Mexicans and virulently anti-Muslim, and that he favoured torture. He has insulted women who have questioned him on television. Yet he is very likely to win the nomination of a reluctant Republican party.
When people dislike a politician intensely, they reach for the one cliché they think is effective – the person is compared to Adolf Hitler. This insults the millions Hitler killed. Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, is routinely compared to Hitler. Now it is Donald Trump’s turn.
Both Trump and Modi. They defy expectations of people who thought they should be unelectable. Trump’s party establishment, like Modi’s once did, wants him to fail. Many insiders from the Hindu nationalist Indian People’s party predicted, indeed wished, that Modi would not get more than 180 seats in India’s 2014 general election. He disappointed them, winning an absolute majority with 283 seats.
Trump reflects the general public’s deep dissatisfaction with establishment politics. Many white Americans, especially males, are resentful over the relative decline of the middle class.
The right-wing politician knows how to galvanise this dissatisfaction. The demagogue on the right arouses passions, while the demagogue on the left hopes to incite virtuous anger. The right-wing demagogue uses extreme language that even the most radical left-wing candidate – Bernie Sanders, for example – cannot match.
Trump has other advantages. The global economy sank in 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected as the country’s first black president, with banks having to be rescued by the taxpayer. Unemployment rose. Many people lost their houses in the slump. Crude racism combined with economic distress led to the formation of the Tea party within the Republican party.
Political anger is most often expressed by people suffering genuine economic loss. They are not poor but constantly worried they could sink into poverty. These people project their sense of helplessness on their elected representatives, who they see as equally ineffective. They yearn for someone who would break the rules and change the system.
When Barry Goldwater ran for the Republican party in 1964, there was disbelief and panic. All the standard insults were hurled at him. Goldwater failed, but he sowed the seeds for Ronald Reagan’s triumph in 1980. People have forgotten that Reagan incited as much anger when he was running for president as Trump does today. Now Reagan is rated very highly.
No one should pretend that American presidents have all been noble creatures from George Washington onwards. Almost all were racists until you get to late 20th century. Thomas Jefferson was a slave-owner. Warren Harding had to resign over corruption allegations. Richard Nixon was impeached over Watergate. Ulysses Grant, though a great general, was an alcoholic.
Could Donald Trump surprise us? Why not? The demagogue has one advantage over the sober politician – no one expects him to stick to what he says. Reagan talked of balanced budgets but ran a vigorous Keynesian budgetary policy which revived the economy. He sank the Soviet Union by outspending it in defence. Trump could run an aggressive fiscal policy. That could be just what the economy needs.
Prof. Lord (Meghnad) Desai is Emeritus Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Chairman of the OMFIF Advisory Board.