Watching Donald Trump the other night as he spoke to members of the National Rifle Association, America’s powerful gun lobby, I was struck by the number of outright lies he fits into a short speech.
For instance, he cited Barack Obama’s neglect of the armed forces. The example he gave to prove this outlandish assertion was that US fighter pilots had to scrounge for spare parts in rubbish dumps to keep their aircraft operational. How he expected any intelligent person to swallow this whopper is beyond me, but his audience cheered when he said that when he was elected president, he would make sure the armed forces received the funds they needed. Considering that America already outspends its allies and rivals several times over on defence, this claim should have been considered outrageous, but his audience lapped it up.
He went on to accuse the presumptive Democrat contender, Hillary Clinton, of wanting to do away with the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, and taking away the millions of guns held by Americans. This amendment guarantees the right of American citizens to bear arms, and has prevented any meaningful control over the sale of the lethal firearms that exact a toll of around 33,000 lives a year. The reality is that while Clinton does want to limit easy access to guns, she has never spoken about abrogating the Second Amendment.
Clearly, then, Trump occupies some truth-free universe where it is perfectly kosher to brazenly lie when it suits him to make some point or to criticise an opponent. Nevertheless, the Republican candidate has decimated his opponents on his march towards the White House. The Republican field had as many as 17 hopefuls when the primary season started; Trump now is the only man standing.
But then Clinton is no standard-bearer of the truth, either. She, too, is more than capable of making up her own version of reality to suit her purpose. In her campaign against Obama in 2008, she famously told an audience that when she visited Sarajevo during the Balkan war in the 1990s, she had to duck for cover to avoid sniper fire at the airport. Journalists quickly dug out a video of the event that showed Clinton being received by schoolgirls bearing flowers.
Earlier in the campaign, American pundits reassured us that there was no way Trump would win the Republican nomination. Voters would soon see through him and his challenge would fade away. Famous last words. Now there is a mind-numbing inevitability to his triumphant march, with two recent opinion polls placing him ahead of Clinton.
Even though she is the lesser of the two evils, she remains a deeply flawed candidate, with strong negative numbers. But given the power at the disposal of the US president, she is slightly less scary than Trump. However, we need now to imagine a world where he is commander-in-chief of the most powerful military machine the world has ever known.
But the bigger immediate worry is what his election would mean for global trade. He has denounced globalisation and trade treaties, and threatens to undo several of them. He has also vowed to slap heavy duties on Chinese imports. This would trigger a trade war, and might provoke China into selling its trillion-dollar plus stash of US treasury bills. Such turmoil would play havoc with exchange rates and cause a string of ruinous counter-measures by countries around the world.
Of course this is a worst-case scenario. It is just possible that once in power, Trump would abandon his nationalistic, America-first rhetoric and find excuses why he can’t deliver on his economically illiterate agenda. But after having fed his supporters a steady diet of red meat for months, can he turn them into vegetarians overnight?
Much as we are appalled at the prospect of a Trump presidency, we need to remember that he is the only major American politician to openly state that the US invasion of Iraq was a disaster, and has led to the creation of the militant Islamic State group.
He has also been highly critical of the Nato intervention in Libya that has led to the violence and power vacuum in that country. And surprisingly, he welcomed the Russian military support for the embattled Assad regime in Syria. All these positions are major departures from US foreign policy.
There was a time when Republican presidents were deemed to be good for Pakistan, while Democrats raised uncomfortable issues like democracy and human rights. Thus, we had American leaders like Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and George W Bush supporting a string of military dictators in Pakistan from Ayub Khan to Pervez Musharraf. But now, both candidates have been saying threatening, uncomplimentary things about Pakistan. I fear that no matter who wins, Pakistan will be hard pressed on a number of security-related issues.
Old alliances will also be shaken up. Trump has declared that the American defence umbrella will only be extended to those who pay for it. Then, there is the whole debate over immigrants, with Trump demanding a halt to the flow of Mexicans working in America. In fact, he has famously promised to build a wall between the two countries, and make Mexico pay for it.
But perhaps the most odious threat he has made to date is about Muslims, and how he would prevent them from entering the United States. Universally condemned, the threat nevertheless resonates among Trump supporters who see increasing terrorism in Europe as an example of what can happen with unchecked migration from Muslim countries.
All my American friends are horrified at the prospect of a Trump victory in November. But more than Americans, the rest of the world needs to feel afraid. Very afraid.
Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2016