Hanson’s essay on “Trump and the American Divide”

Make America Great Again
Make America Great Again

Victor Davis Hanson, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford University, wrote a long piece for the Winter 2017 issue of City Journal magazine titled “Trump and the American Divide.” I find reading a well-written, thoughtful long piece in a magazine more interesting and informative than a few dozen breathlessly written newspapers short pieces. Good long pieces take time to write and are usually written a reasonable interval after the event(s), which allows both the writer and the reader a wider perspective.

Mr Hanson makes the case that there there is a divide in the US between the urban and the rural, the blue and red states, between the prosperous and those left behind, the “progressives” and the conservatives, the urbane and the rustics. Trump, a billionaire wheeler-dealer Manhattanite, surprisingly addressed the anxieties of those whom the political establishment had neglected. Good piece and worth reading carefully. Below I have quoted a few paragraphs from the essay.

Here I want to draw a lesson that may be of some relevance to India. There is no doubt that like the US, India too is divided. Although there would be disagreements on what those divides are and the reasons for them, nearly everyone would agree that there are divides. Some of these divides go back hundreds of years, some are of more recent vintage. The religious/cultural divides are ancient and the more recent ones are political and ideological. Political parties rely on these divisions, and indeed create and entrench them in the body politic the better to exploit the people.

For decades the Congress party was able to ignore the concerns of the majority—on one side of one of the many divides—and still retain power; in 2014 however it could no longer pull it off. That was partly due to the message that Modi brought to the discussion, and partly due to plain disgust with the sorry bunch of corrupt incompetents that Antonia Maino, aka Sonia Gandhi, presided over.

Modi has just about another half term left before the general elections of 2019. Instead of delivering what he promised and what many (perhaps a majority that voted for the BJP) expected, he has reneged on his promise. Instead of minimum government he promised so vociferously, India has been suffering increased government high-handed meddling. Instead of taking a new, more reasonable course than the Maino-led UPA, he took the same old road of increasing appeasement of the minority. Instead of focusing on the creating the conditions necessary for prosperity, Modi is going the “Garibi Hatao” way of Indira Gandhi. That’s the road to not just deepening poverty but also the road to serfdom.

Frankly speaking I don’t have a very high opinion of the masses. Politically they tend to be very naive and shortsighted. But even stupid people eventually get the memo: they realize that they have been bamboozled after being bamboozled one too many times. Modi, like Hillary Clinton, may end up surprised at the results. It is all karma, neh?

Anyway, here’s a bit from Mr Hanson’s piece, for the record:

In the twenty-first century, though, the exploitation of natural resources and the manufacturing of products are more easily outsourced than are the arts of finance, insurance, investments, higher education, entertainment, popular culture, and high technology, immaterial sectors typically pursued within metropolitan contexts and supercharged by the demands of increasingly affluent global consumers. A vast government sector, mostly urban, is likewise largely impervious to the leveling effects of a globalized economy, even as its exorbitant cost and extended regulatory reach make the outsourcing of material production more likely. Asian steel may have devastated Youngstown, but Chinese dumping had no immediate effect on the flourishing government enclaves in Washington, Maryland, and Virginia, filled with well-paid knowledge workers. Globalization, big government, and metastasizing regulations have enriched the American coasts, in other words, while damaging much of the nation’s interior.

Few major political leaders before Trump seemed to care. He hammered home the point that elites rarely experienced the negative consequences of their own ideologies. New York Times columnists celebrating a “flat” world have yet to find themselves flattened by Chinese writers willing to write for a fraction of their per-word rate. Tenured Harvard professors hymning praise to global progressive culture don’t suddenly discover their positions drawn and quartered into four part-time lecturer positions. And senators and bureaucrats in Washington face no risk of having their roles usurped by low-wage Vietnamese politicians. Trump quickly discovered that millions of Americans were irate that the costs and benefits of our new economic reality were so unevenly distributed.

. . . Language is also different in the countryside. Rural speech serves, by its very brevity and directness, as an enhancement to action. Verbosity and rhetoric, associated with urbanites, were always rural targets in classical literature, precisely because they were seen as ways to disguise reality so as to advance impractical or subversive political agendas. Thucydides, nearly 2,500 years before George Orwell’s warnings about linguistic distortion, feared how, in times of strife, words changed their meanings, with the more polished and urbane subverting the truth by masking it in rhetoric that didn’t reflect reality. In the countryside, by contrast, crops either grow or wither; olive trees either yield or remain barren; rain either arrives or is scarce. Words can’t change these existential facts, upon which living even one more day often depends. For the rural mind, language must convey what is seen and heard; it is less likely to indulge adornment.

Today’s rural-minded Americans are little different. Trump’s appeal to the interior had partly to do with his politically incorrect forthrightness. Each time Trump supposedly blundered in attacking a sacred cow—sloppily deprecating national hero John McCain’s wartime captivity or nastily attacking Fox superstar Megyn Kelly for her supposed unfairness—the coastal media wrote him off as a vulgar loser. Not Trump’s base. Seventy-five percent of his supporters polled that his crude pronouncements didn’t bother them. As one grape farmer told me after the Access Hollywood hot-mike recordings of Trump making sexually vulgar remarks had come to light, “Who cares? I’d take Trump on his worst day better than Hillary on her best.” Apparently red-state America was so sick of empty word-mongering that it appreciated Trump’s candor, even when it was sometimes inaccurate, crude, or cruel. … Trump’s Queens accent and frequent use of superlatives—“tremendous,” “fantastic,” “awesome”—weren’t viewed by red-state America as a sign of an impoverished vocabulary but proof that a few blunt words can capture reality.

To the rural mind, verbal gymnastics reveal dishonest politicians, biased journalists, and conniving bureaucrats, who must hide what they really do and who they really are. … rural Americans would have preferred to be wrong with the blunt-talking Trump than to be right with the mush-mouthed Hillary Clinton. One reason that Trump may have outperformed both McCain and Romney with minority voters was that they appreciated how much the way he spoke rankled condescending white urban liberals.

Like I said before, the entire essay is worth a slow read.

Intellectuals seldom speak truth to power, partly because they rely on the powerful for their lunch. Even rarer than that is when someone powerful actually speaks the truth, or what the person believes sincerely to be the truth. In my view, no politician in contemporary India has the guts or the brains to speak what they believe to be the truth. Their concerns are not truth but rather the lust for power. That motive poisons what comes out of their mouths. Their concern is not what is it that needs to be done to solve the problems but how to manage the perceptions of the people so as to win the next elections.

That presents an opportunity to anyone who speaks not just sincerely but also sensibly. I think—I sincerely hope—that people are eager to hear the truth that will set them free.

{Hat tip: Rajan Parrikar for the link to the essay.}

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