Eight years ago I was in San Francisco when a man named Barack Obama stepped onto the stage in Chicago with his young family to make his victory speech. I had wept that night because it had felt truly unbelievable that a black man would become the 44th president of the United States. It felt too naive and premature to talk about a post-racial America but I had wept because it felt like the beginning of something new, that something was shifting in the heart of America.
Eight years later as I woke up in Kolkata to the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency, the Obama years feel not like the beginning of something, but rather the end of something. There is just a numbness.
Sure, numbers show Hillary Clinton might have actually won the popular vote though not the electoral college. America has not just turned bigoted or racist en masse. And all votes for Trump were not born out of racism either. Donald Trump won the presidency with less votes than Mitt Romney got when he lost the presidency. Nevertheless it feels like the end of a certain kind of leader.
That leader was sort of the archetype of the sensitive man. He was the man who told America that it was not about red states or blue states but about the United States of America. Even yesterday Obama was as gracious as ever. "We are not Democrats first, Republicans first. We are Americans first. We all want what's best for America," he said. But the Age of Obama, that most unlikeliest of American presidents, is ending and not just because his term is finishing.
"We are not Democrats first, Republicans first. We are Americans first. We all want what's best for America."
Now the world is electing, one after another, a different type of leader, the new Il Duces. This leader's job is not to be inclusive but decisive. Vladimir Putin. Narendra Modi. Rodrigo Duterte. Shinzo Abe. Recep Erdogan. Donald Trump is not some vulgar aberration. America, self-described leader of the free world, is merely catching up to the rest of the world.
Newt Gingrich, the former US Speaker and one of the few in the Republican establishment who acted as a Trump surrogate told NDTV he expected Trump and Modi to get along well. They just might. Duterte has already said "I don't want to quarrel anymore because Trump has won." This is a time for mano-y-mano diplomacy that relies more on personal chemistry than institutions.
Shinzo Abe invited Putin to Japan to discuss the islands Russia has occupied since 1945. But he invited him to a hot spring in Abe's home town. An aide to the Japanese PM said "It will be two naked middle-aged guys in a hot spring trying to sort things out." He might not pose bare-chested on horseback but we can see Trump in that world of larger-than-life strongmen far more easily than an Obama who would bend down to let a small child feel his hair.
This leader's job is not to be inclusive but decisive. Vladimir Putin. Narendra Modi. Rodrigo Duterte. Shinzo Abe. Recep Erdogan. Donald Trump is not some vulgar aberration.
They are leaders of a new kind of world order built more explicitly around an hard-edged nationalism whether it's India First or the Philippines First or America First (or a certain kind of American First). The basic message is a national revival and draining the swamp of the elites. It's a nationalism that wants stronger borders, higher walls, and fences around their backyards. They think this will keep jobs in and those they deem the "other" out. There's a lot of debate about whether the rise of Trump is about racism or about economics. But do they need to be mutually exclusive? Can a demagogue not exploit both and ride to power?
These are strongmen leaders who want to project an image of someone who takes no guff from anyone, be it the United States or the United Nations. Hillary Clinton was falsely characterized as someone who was for open borders. She was not but it is true that she represented a global order that was about a more integrated world. The giant multilateral trade agreements were part of that dream as was the European Union. That integration is coming apart and we see anxious nation states wanting the comfort of borders that feel secure and impermeable.
We are shocked by the crassness of a Duterte, the coarseness of a Trump. But that misses the appeal of the blunt-talking leader who shrugs off all criticism of his style as a straitjacket of political correctness. Duterte's salty tongue is his USP, not his liability. The Atlantic noted several analyses where almost half of men felt American culture had become too soft and feminine, and men were suffering as a result. Trump supporters felt men were punished for acting like men and found comfort in his talk of male dominance and success. On a global scale Trump reprised that image insisting over and over again that America was the laughing stock of the world and that he would fix that.
Political correctness, these leaders will say, has not delivered enough jobs. Instead it has bred majoritarian resentment. The majority, the ones to whom the country "belonged" have been told to mind their p's and q's, to adjust to changing demographics, to accommodate minorities, to worry about the human rights of drug peddlers in the Philippines. In the process, they have also decided they are being pushed into a corner, that their sins are magnified and trespasses of the "others" are excused and coddled.
The Patels of Gujarat and the Jats of Haryana shocked us when they demanded reservations but they were just the harbingers of that majority-as-minority phenomenon. A Harvard Business Review analysis found Republican men felt increasingly discriminated against. In 2012 9% said they faced a "great deal" of discrimination. In 2016, that figure rose to 18%. David Frum, a Republican who did not support Trump, wrote way back in July what the election looked like to a Trump supporter. The supporter claims the victimhood of a minority but this an angry victimhood of a group who feel that their frustrations are dismissed as racism or bigotry or sexism.
"You tell us we're a minority now? OK. We're going to start acting like a minority. We're going to vote like a bloc, and we're going to vote for our bloc's champion. So long as he keeps faith with us against you, we'll keep faith with him against you."
"You loved the Democratic convention didn't you? Soaring rhetoric, we're all together in just one big beautiful rainbow quilt: illegal aliens and billionaires, all together," scoffs the composite Trump supporter. "You tell us we're a minority now? OK. We're going to start acting like a minority. We're going to vote like a bloc, and we're going to vote for our bloc's champion. So long as he keeps faith with us against you, we'll keep faith with him against you."
This week they defied the polls, and much of their own party establishment and kept faith with Donald Trump. And while liberals reassure themselves that they will keep fighting, that they need to understand the desperate economics that drove the whitelash, that Trump is a conman not a true Republican and will implode in four years, they will have to contemplate one unsettling possibility. Perhaps this was not some aberration at all.
Instead was Obama the aberration and Trump the new normal? Sometimes what happens in America is heard around the world. This time what was being heard around the world has finally found its echo in America. That echo is now reverberating through the White House.