“I am a big fan of Hindu [sic] . . . Big, big fan,” Donald Trump, the next president of the United States, told an adoring crowd of Indian-Americans last month in New Jersey. The Republican candidate also hailed Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, and member of an alt-right Hindu organization inspired by Hitler, as “a great man.” In recent weeks, Modi has engaged in some treacherous military brinkmanship, claiming to assault nuclear-armed Pakistan with “surgical strikes” while presiding over a brutal campaign of repression in Muslim-majority Kashmir. According to Trump, however, the Hindu hardliner knows how to make his country great again: by battling Islamic terrorism and propelling his countrymen through sheer force of personality into an era of heroic entrepreneurship.
Trump’s shout-outs, whether to Vladimir Putin or Modi, have resonated across an expanded theater of demagoguery—from the US to the Philippines—in which conventional oppositions between East and West, North and South, democracy and authoritarianism, have been erased. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, claimed Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and China’s Xi Jinping as his inspiration while scorning effete European liberals. Tough guys, from the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders to the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, have welcomed Trump’s “revolution.” Rudyard Kipling seems to have anticipated our moment of virile male bonding across borders when he wrote in “The Ballad of East and West” that “there is neither East nor West . . . when two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth.”
Xenophobes and racists have feverishly cross-pollinated since the first phase of globalization began to closely knit our world together in the late 19th century. Veer Savarkar, the Hindu fanatic who conspired to assassinate Gandhi (and who is Modi’s greatest hero), drew encouragement from American white supremacists. In Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?, the Holy Bible of Hindu supremacism, Savarkar expressed a conviction (one that Trump dog-whistled for much of his campaign): that the United States “must stand or fall with the fortunes of its Anglo-Saxon constituents,” and that the “Negro” is not to be trusted.
Trump’s behavior also manifests the traits diagnosed in Modi, very early in the Indian’s political career, by the social psychologist Ashis Nandy: the American, too, seems a “classic, clinical case” of the “authoritarian personality,” with its “narrowing of emotional life” and “fantasies of violence.” Size matters to both leaders: Modi claims to possess a 56-inch chest, and Trump hints at the impressive length of a male body part. And there is more than coincidence in the fact that Modi also made his bid for supreme power on the back of a Twitter fan base built on xenophobic claims—such as that his country is ruled by a dodgy foreigner (the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi), and overrun by Muslims and immigrants—and then rose to prominence through the politics of awesome spectacle and awestruck spectatorship.
But similar ideologies and political styles, or psychological affinities, of the flashy new “egocrats” obscure a much more disturbing, and little-understood, social, political and cultural conjuncture: the facilitation, both inadvertent and deliberate, of demagoguery by political, financial, and media elites driving, with extraordinary synergy, the radically disruptive forces of globalization in recent years. It is clear now that these exalted men and women participated in a lethal ideological fantasy of what the critic Christopher Lasch called “an indefinite expansion of the demand for consumer goods” that “presupposes a constant revision of material expectations, a never-ending redefinition of luxuries as necessities, continual incorporation of new groups into the culture of consumption, and ultimately the creation of a global market.”
All means in the pursuit of this utopia, shock-and-awe violence as well as deregulation and de-unionization, were deemed legitimate by its main beneficiaries. In this lucratively expanded theatre of entrepreneurship and private wealth-creation, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg wooed Modi long before Peter Thiel fell for Trump, and Ivy League academics, op-ed pundits, and think-tankers eagerly enlisted as cheerleaders for a “rising” India while a ratings-obsessed media in both the India and the US stoked a politics of violence and hysteria.
Tuesday’s nasty outcome seems foreordained. Racial-ethnic supremacists foaming at the mouth are not usually found in—and even snobbishly excluded—from the bright prosceniums where suave liberals and smooth-tongued technocrats revolve. But, as always, they stood ready in the shadows, awaiting their cue; and it now seems a bit late to belabor their well-advertised racism and misogyny, work up fearful visions of the future, and allot oneself a heroic role in the coming resistance.
Criticism, including rigorous self-criticism, may be more rewarding than despair, anguish, and bravado. Encouragingly, the once marginal and much-derided critique—that extreme inequalities of income and opportunity spawned by unregulated capitalism poison political cultures and threaten democracy itself—is now nearly a cliché. Journalists finally openly outrage about a media specializing in blatant falsehood, scoundrelly patriotism, and cloud-cuckoo economism. Feature articles, marked by a near-zoological curiosity, about the people left or pushed behind by globalization have suddenly proliferated in recent weeks in even glossy periodicals. Apolitical novelists, too, have been moved to record their shock and bewilderment at political earthquakes. After such innocence, there can only be sharper knowledge—and self-awareness—if no forgiveness. Nothing would redeem more the bleak time ahead than a clear-eyed reckoning with the calamitous breakdowns and pathologies of which Modi and the big, big fan of Hindu are mere symptoms.
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