A murky light dawns in America

A certain kind of democracy and free press are alive and well in the US and we in India should remember that and take heart from that

By Ruchir Joshi
  • Published 13.11.18, 8:50 AM
  • Updated 13.11.18, 8:50 AM
  • 6 mins read
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If you are from a country with a prime minister who has been too scared to even once hold a proper press conference with hostile questioning, you would regard Donald Trump's post-election presser with horror and admiration AP

It may be a new morning in America, as the former and future House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, reportedly said, channelling Ronald Reagan, but the light is murky. Or, to lean on Faiz Ahmad Faiz, this is not exactly the dawn we had hoped for, ‘we’ as in the Democrats and many millions of us around the world. Thinking about politics, one should keep one’s feet firmly on the ground yet one must always allow a sliver of mad hope; about the US mid-term elections the mad hope was that not only the House but also the Senate would somehow change hands. When I expressed this to an Indian friend living in Alaska, he messaged back: “Nahi hoga boss, bhool jaao, Senate no chance.” On the morning of the results, he sent me the US map with its huge spread of Republican red with the Democrat blue biting in at edges, his text saying: “After two years of Trump, this is what America thinks.”

There are many silver linings, of course. There will be no 1933 Hitler-style hijacking of democracy via legal elections; there is now a line drawn, beyond which Agent Orange’s power will not extend; Donald Trump’s toxic agendas are now toast. Even if Trump manages to derail the Mueller investigation, the Congress can now pick up the baton and subpoena the daylights out of the rich squatter in the White House, keeping him tied up in answering questions and defending himself, keeping him too busy to cause much trouble elsewhere, or, at least, minimize the trouble he can cause. Perhaps we will finally get to see those tax returns that the Trumpionaire fought so hard to keep under the carpet. Perhaps there will be a hard brake on the huge damage being wreaked on the environment.

On the other hand, a huge chunk of Ranch Amerika is still under the control of the Republicans. Older white men who believe (white) people have the right to own and carry AR-15 assault rifles without any background checks, no matter the constant chain of massacres where innocents get killed; men (and women) who believe women shouldn’t have the automatic right to abortion; business leaders in the arms industry who are openly thrilled that the bloodbath in Yemen is boosting their profits; ‘folks’ who believe America has the right to behave and consume as if it’s on a different planet from the rest of us and will cause whatever wanton destruction across the planet to ‘defend’ that ‘right’. Trump will still be able to ram through appointments of Supreme Court judges and such like with the help of the strengthened majority in the Senate. There will be other grim fallouts from the Senate races and the governorships the Republicans have managed to retain or gain.

Another president might have been chastened by the results and the possibility that Birnam Wood might start to move and encircle him, but not Trump. Swimming in his own bubble, wearing nothing but the diaper of his ego, Trump has declared these elections to be a huge victory, a stomping vindication of his policies and attitudes. Listing the names of the Republicans who distanced themselves from him and lost, he has sneered at their defeats while puffing his chest at the wins of the candidates for whom he campaigned. ‘It is all about me,’ he seems to be saying to the Republicans, ‘and don’t you dare forget it’. If that sounds somewhat familiar to us Indians, it’s because the comparison is obvious, but let’s park that thought to the side, park it, but with the engine running.

In a recent article in The New York Times, Zeynep Tufekci made the point that these US elections had already been hacked, but not by any foreign meddling or EVM tampering. How? “Because the legitimacy of an election depends on the electorate accepting that it was fair, that everyone who tried to vote got to vote and that every vote counted. Lose that, and your voting system might as well have suffered a devastating technological attack.” Tufekci goes on to point out that a recent poll shows that 46 per cent of Americans do not think their votes will be counted fairly. “That loss of trust has itself become a form of voter discouragement. Why vote, when you feel it may not matter?” The record turnout at the polling booths seemed to hole Tufekci’s argument, but as the results ticked in (or didn’t) it became clear that the Repugnicants’ tricks of the gerrymandering of voting district boundaries and voter suppression (by demanding an exact match of ID to listed name and so on) had had their effect. Even as gubernatorial and Senate races went towards recounts and possible run-offs (repeat elections), Trump and his cohorts began a chorus accusing Democrats of voter fraud. This is a classic trick from the playbook of fascists — commit a crime or an atrocity while simultaneously accusing the Opposition of being the guilty party.

Thinking about Tufekci’s argument, one has to be happy that the situation in India is somewhat different. We have long lived with the reality of booth-capturing, of fraudulent voting, of denying various oppressed segments their right to vote. All this has become part and parcel of our electoral process and, yet, we diligently vote because we understand that every little bit counts, because we don’t know what volume of genuine votes will trickle through, but we know that the mass of voting will help us break through to some dented, battered democratic result.

The other point being made about the US voting system is that certain peculiar things that were put in place around 1776 are now completely anachronistic. For instance, the business of the Electoral College filtering the presidential votes has meant that at least twice in recent history the real winner — the candidate who got the most votes — did not get to become president, it was the loser who managed to wend his way into the White House. The presidencies of both George W. Bush and Donald Trump have been unmitigated disasters for America and the world; we will never know what an Al Gore presidency or a Hillary regime would have looked like, but this system is unlikely to change any time soon. The second thing that should have gone the way of the flintlock rifle is the rule that each state in America has two senators, no matter what the population. So the most populous state, California (40 million), has the same number of senators as the least populated state, Wyoming (573,720). Imagine an upper House in Parliament that had serious decision-making powers over the lower House on foreign policy and the selection of Supreme Court judges and then imagine Kerala or Odisha having the same representation in it as South Bhowanipore and you begin to see how absurd this is.

Absurdity, though, is what America does supremely well, so well that it even gives India a run for its money. If you watch the complete segment of Trump’s recent press conference and his interaction, first with CNN’s Jim Acosta and then NBC’s Peter Alexander, a few things become very clear. As Acosta starts to ask his question, Trump is like a second-rate pugilist, already feinting, fending and punching before the other person has moved. When the question comes, (why did he call the caravan of refugees, a thousand miles away from the US border, ‘an invasion’?) Trump doesn’t like it, instead of answering it he swats it away without answering why. When pinned down, he loses his temper and snarls at Acosta, more like the owner of a small-town Bar & Diner firing one of his short-order cooks than the president of a huge nation answering a tough question from a leading correspondent. Then comes the scuffle with the staff intern who tries to snatch the microphone from Acosta, where she barges into Acosta who tries to hold on to the mike. While Trump keeps verbally attacking Acosta, the action shifts to Alexander who defends Acosta. “Well, I’m not a big fan of yours either”, snaps Trump. Acosta then gets up again to ask Trump why he called CNN “an enemy of the nation”; Trump replies: “When you report fake news, which CNN does a lot, then you are the enemy of the people!”

If you are from a country with a prime minister who has been too scared to even once undergo a proper press conference with hostile questioning, you watch this scene with both horror and admiration. Here, we’ve had the attacks on the journalists of critical channels and newspapers, but mainly from the leadership’s sycophants. The message, however, is the same: if you criticize Narendra Modi or the government, you are lying; if you question the powers-that-be, you are anti-national and possibly an Urban Naxal. Acosta and Alexander’s courage, however, is to be admired. No matter what the repercussions are of the US mid-terms, a certain kind of democracy and free press are still alive and well in America and we in India have to remember that and take heart from that.