DONALD Trump has become the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, an outcome few had predicted. His outlandish candidacy has sent shockwaves not only globally but even among moderate Republicans, many of them being unsure if they can back him.
It is helpful to compare Trump with the last US president to attract such strong negativity. George W. Bush alienated world opinion only after attacking Iraq and American opinion by failing to find WMDs and contain the Iraq insurgency. But he was not branded a worrisome candidate during the 2000 elections campaign, beyond concerns whether he was smart enough to be president.
In contrast, Trump had alienated large sections of global and domestic opinion even before becoming the Republican nominee by his vile comments about Mexicans, Muslims, blacks and women. Even Bush did not sink to such low levels and visited a mosque soon after 9/11.
His brash and xenophobic social conservatism makes Trump the most controversial major party presidential candidate in recent US politics. That such xenophobia attracts millions in the US raises concerns and makes it crucial to grasp the role of xenophobia in the broader edifice of conservatism.
In pre-capitalist societies, economic exploitation and political marginalisation was usually practised against weaker racial, ethnic or religious groups, allowing dominant primordial groups to enrich themselves at their expense. Xenophobic social conservatism played a critical role here by providing the moral justification for exploiting other groups by branding them as inferior and lazy and hence legitimate targets for dominance.
But in advanced capitalist societies, economic exploitation and political marginalisation occurs primarily against weaker classes, not racial or ethnic groups. Thus, xenophobic social conservatism gradually becomes redundant and weaker (even as political and economic conservatism may strengthen), seems unacceptable to even moderate conservatives and survives only among far-right groups.
That an openly xenophobic person has won the Republican nomination signals its regressive resurgence as a tool for economic and political dominance in US politics. Under Trump’s neo-xenophobia, large sections of white working and middle-class Americans have been led to believe that their economic woes are due to non-whites rather than the unfair US economic system controlled by upper-class whites like Trump.
By electing Trump, conservative US has erected a larger-than-life living statue as a loud advertisement of its worldview. If Trump wins, this worldview will dominate US politics. Unlike Bush, Trump’s focus will not be on foreign military adventurism, for Afghan and Iraq wars memories will not allow that for long. Rather, it will be on reshaping the global economy in line with US interests through economic threats and xenophobic rhetoric.
The xenophobic Trump promises to “make America great again”. True, xenophobic exploitation of Natives and blacks did play a big role in constructing the foundation for US’s rise. However, economic and scientific innovation ultimately became the immediate contributors of American economic greatness.
While he is a billionaire businessman, he has made his wealth in marginal sectors like gambling, entertainment, real estate etc. where serious technological innovations play a minor role, unlike in manufacturing and IT. Rather than igniting innovation to strengthen the US economy, he will thus rely on trying to browbeat competitors through xenophobic rhetoric. Obviously these xenophobic attempts will not succeed in today’s multipolar world and will only stoke global economic tensions, especially given his temperamental personality and superficial understanding of issues.
Ties with Pakistan will likely deteriorate further under any Republican president but more so under Trump on issues such as nuclear weapons, Afghan Taliban, Shakil Afridi etc. Public threats and dressing downs of Pakistan may increase while aid may decrease.
Thus, the outcomes of a Trump presidency will be highly negative. Fortunately, the probabilities of a Trump presidency are far lower. It takes 270 electoral votes to become US president. States which deliver 242 electoral votes have reliably voted Democrat in recent elections, due to growing minority populations, with many others leaning towards Democrats.
Even though whites are still 70pc of the population and voter turnout higher among them, given ideological differences, no one can become US president by pursuing conservative white votes only. The xenophobic rhetoric which helped Trump win the primaries will likely hand him defeat in the elections.
But will the xenophobia which helped him rise disappear with his loss or re-emerge more dangerously in the future? That the other main contender Hillary Clinton is also highly flawed raises concerns too about the direction of US politics. Only the strong support garnered by the genteel Bernie keeps one hopeful.
The writer is a political economist and a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley.
Published in Dawn, May 10th, 2016