The survival of morality in humankind is primarily dependent on the idea that good ultimately triumphs over evil. This promised denouement, karmic destiny of evil if you will, has ensured two things for several millennia. One, it has bent the arc of civilisation towards what we call the defining virtues of humanity. And two, it has helped humans retain hope and faith — indispensable survival traits since ages — even during times evil has appeared invincible.
Seen in this context, Donald Trump’s defeat and impending humiliation in the US elections is a timely reaffirmation of the promised finale of the good-vs-evil story. To restore the balance that has kept civilisations ticking, for the survival of kindness, empathy, decency, and hope, the racist, xenophobic, divisive, mendacious, morally dysfunctional and megalomaniac — all the qualities that define evil — Trump had to lose the election. It is a relief that he ultimately did. And, people everywhere are celebrating, shedding tears of joy on live TV (https://www.theguardian.com/
The other cause for celebration is that this triumph has come sooner than expected. Those who understand the Indian philosophy of life would agree that evil is destined to be defeated (the ‘yada, yada hi dharmasya’ promise), but sometimes the decisive battle takes its own sweet time. So, Trump’s political demise in mere four years is indeed justice on steroids.
But, some questions are difficult to answer.
It is still beyond some people’s ken how an outrageous outlier like Trump was elected as President by a country like the US, that, too, soon after Barack Obama. Trump was a complete repudiation of every ideal Obama represented. By electing him as their leader, voters in the US seemed to suggest they were reverting to medievalism after an ephemeral — and, by inference, a failed — experiment with idealism. It was an astonishing reversal of a journey away from the troubled history of racism and white supremacy.
Four years of Trump, an era of darkness that divided the US society, stoked racism, xenophobia, promoted corruption, destroyed many of its institutions, saw the spectacle of the President negotiating with a tinpot dictator in North Korea, leaning upon foreign countries to dig up dirt on Joe Biden, and getting impeached, should have been more than enough to convince voters that 2016 was a mistake, an accident of destiny.
And, yet, Trump has not been rejected by the US. He has, in fact, gained 5 million more votes than in 2016 and, horror, horror, even managed to cut through some Democratic strongholds, like the Latino community in Florida. Biden won not because fewer voters wanted Trump elected; he prevailed because more people came out to vote for the Democrat and restored its ‘Blue Wall’ — the states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — with narrow margins.
In fact, during the early hours of counting, Trump appeared invincible.
While the ‘Blue Wall’ states appeared yet again to lean towards Trump on Tuesday night, former US Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill almost threw up her hand in despair on TV: “This is a gut-check moment…He (Trump) is connecting with a lot of Americans in ways that a lot of us find hard to understand…” she said.
So, here is a question for the ages: what is it about Trump that appeals to people?
On the political front, the answers are many. The economy under him did well. He turned out to be a hawk on China and Iran. And, when the coronavirus pandemic began, he convinced a part of the electorate that keeping the country would save jobs and the American economy.
But, there is something more to Trump’s appeal — his abrasive personality, his outlandish behaviour and the image of an outlier — that is intriguing. Why do his fans just love him?
The easiest answer is his supporters see in him a reflection of their own image. Trump likes to lie, leans towards primeval emotions like hate, racism, and xenophobia, exploits fear, anger and hatred, rails against liberals, intellectuals and religious minorities in a bid to divide and, thus, rule, and always manages to find someone else to blame for his failure. He is self-centred, egoistic, unethical and loves to project an image of strength and machismo.
In a podcast, American author Sam Harris, tries to explain the Trump phenomenon by arguing that people like him because he ends up communicating that he is not better than his followers. “His personal shamelessness is a spiritual balm (for others),” says Harris. (You can listen to the podcast here https://samharris.org/
Early humans lived in small groups, they were conditioned to guard their small turfs with ruthless zeal and saw others, especially those who were not like them, as a threat to their survival. This cave-man instinct is still the basis for xenophobia, racism and toxic nationalism.
The natural progression of humanity has been possible because of leaders who have guided people away from these instincts and argued for a society that finds these emotions regressive, unethical and inhuman. But, when people like Trump give them legitimacy, more so by leading from example, these hidden instincts become part of the mainstream and acceptable forms of public behaviour.
To put it bluntly, the evil within comes out of the closet and becomes fashionable. And its public proponents become heroes for showing the middle finger to morals, ethics and liberal ideals, thus liberating their followers from a complex that no longer makes them feel inferior to those who are liberal, ethical and decent. Being bad, to borrow Gordon Gecko’s Wall Street ethos, becomes good.
Trump’s success, thus, was in casting many Amercans in his mould, and making them grateful and proud for it. Under his leadership, his fans believed ‘making America great again’ was basically a “yes, we can” call for reverting to a past — a pre-Obama world — where they were entitled to being ugly, greedy, lying, racist, toxic, unethical Amercans.
America should be grateful the natural arc of humanity has tilted towards them, at least for now.