Just six months or so ago, Donald Trump was a very visible contender for the American Presidency, but not very many analysts took him seriously. A New Yorker who spent his life building casinos, golf courses and hotels, and hosting reality shows, hardly had the kind of gravitas expected of the American President. Yet, for what it's worth, every time I strolled outside the premises of Trump Tower while visiting UN headquarters, I got a palpable sense that he was nothing short of a phenomenon that would set the course for America in the days ahead. Now, with Ted Cruz dropping out of the race, there is no choice but to look at Trump seriously.
Over the last six months, I have observed the class arrogance, snobbery and elitism of left-liberal intellectuals and the media in their understanding of Trump phenomenon. NBC's Andrea Mitchell stated that Trump is "completely uneducated about any part of the world." The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson declared that Trump's "ignorance of government policy" was "breathtaking." Tara Setmayer of CNN said Trump is "wholly unqualified" to be President, while the New York Times editorial board delivered its judgment that Trump's views are "disturbing" and "shockingly ignorant."
Even a reasoned opposition to "the Donald" must now come from an acceptance of the Trump phenomenon.
For all of these damning verdicts, Trump has only gone from strength to strength over the past few months. His rise reminds me of the ascent to power of Narendra Modi who was almost unanimously vilified by the intellectual class and left-liberal media for his controversial role in the Gujarat riots. Much as India has widely embraced Modi as Prime Minister today, I believe that the most rational course of action is to understand the Trump phenomenon and accept his political existence. Even a reasoned opposition to "the Donald" must now come from an acceptance of the Trump phenomenon.
Trump is not just another new kid on the block. His rise has much deeper meanings. It signifies a big question mark by the US populace on the neo-liberal regime characterized by free-trade, large aid programs and military interventions to foster democracy and "American values". It implies a challenge to America's self-imposed role since WW II of world policeman, often demanding huge economic, political and military investments in return. Fact is that these aid programs and military interventions have brought nothing to America except unpopularity and huge losses of people, material and prestige, be it in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan or Africa. Further, the US with its post-WW II global military infrastructure and diplomatic presence has not been able to contain the rise of China and lately, even Russia has alarmed the US and Western Europe with its aggressive footprint in Ukraine, Syria and its new bonhomie with countries like China, Iran, and Pakistan.
His foreign policy ideas are revolutionary and mark a significant departure from the past. Hillary, on the other hand, has nothing new to say on the subject.
In a cab journey from Hagerstown (Maryland) Washington DC, I got a chance to interact with my driver, Marc, an African American war veteran. To me, he appeared to be a simple, god-fearing middle-class American. I realized that despite his bluster and bullying, Trump has emerged as a hero for many ordinary Americans like Marc; citizens who are White, Hispanic, Black and Asian. In my interactions with common citizens like Marc, I felt that Trump has an extraordinary mastery of the art of political communication. He speaks to the heart of the people. Many of his opponents, notably Hilary Clinton, lack this quality. In my understanding, she fails to connect with a vast section of America. She is perceived as someone who is too mechanical and has no conviction. Further, she is perceived as a military enthusiast who in all likelihood will continue with the interventionist foreign policy with respect to Iran and Syria. And, the people are fatigued with never-ending wars, increasing American bases and forward troop deployment. The only democratic candidate who connected with people with his ideas on poverty and inequality was Bernie Sanders, but it is more or less clear that he is out of the race now for all practical purposes.
Trump's bold and forthright stand on Islamic extremism vis-à-vis the Democrats' obsession with political correctness (reflecting in the use of terms like "violent extremism") swings public opinion in his favour. His political adversaries are perceived as going to extraordinary lengths in their appeasement of countries such as Saudi Arabia that are playing a crucial role in spreading radical Islam.
In effect, his foreign policy means that he would be willing to stop buying oil from the Saudis if they are not serious in the fight against ISIS.
So far, it seems that the political counter to Trump's controversial views on foreign policy has centred on mockery rather than the offering of reasoned alternatives. His foreign policy ideas are revolutionary and mark a significant departure from the past. Hillary, on the other hand, has nothing new to say on the subject.
Rosa Brooks writes in Foreign Policy that despite the contradictions, misstatements and near-total absence of actual facts, Trump is, to a great extent, "articulating a coherent vision of international relations" and America's role in the world. And, this new line of thinking is making sense to people despite its vagueness. In my informal interactions with his supporters, I found that a good number of them do not take his extreme ideas like building a wall on the Mexican border, reviving water-boarding, banning Muslim immigrants seriously. However, they do find the core essentials of his vision on foreign policy sensible and worth considering.
Trump's vision for America's future is realistic. David Sanger and Maggie Haberman capture it well in their New York Times interview with Trump:
"In Mr. Trump's worldview, the United States has become a diluted power, and the main mechanism by which he would re-establish its central role in the world is economic bargaining. He approached almost every current international conflict through the prism of a negotiation, even when he was imprecise about the strategic goals he sought."
He is likely to stop economic aid to Pakistan if it continues to support terrorist groups in India and Afghanistan.
In effect, his foreign policy means that he would be willing to stop buying oil from the Saudis if they are not serious in the fight against ISIS. He wouldn't baulk from restricting China's access to US markets if it continues with strong-arm tactics and bullying in the South China Sea. He is likely to stop economic aid to Pakistan if it continues to support terrorist groups in India and Afghanistan. Further, from his apparent vagueness and contradictions, it appears that Machiavellian unpredictability is also going to be the core principle of his diplomacy. In his interview with NYT he says, "You know, if I win, I don't want to be in a position where I've said I would or I wouldn't [use force to resolve a particular dispute]. I wouldn't want to say. I wouldn't want them to know what my real thinking is." It won't be surprising if someone who has spent his life building casinos and hosting reality shows imports the gambler's bluff in international relations.
I don't know if I really want to see Trump as President or not but yes, I am curious to observe where he might take America. My thoughts on Trump's America are just as unpredictable as his persona. At this stage, all I can say is that if he wins, it will be a new chapter in America's history--hopefully a better one.