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In the age of reaction, a neo-fascist has taken the White House

The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency is yet another blow to the liberal world order.

Whatever happened to the politics of hope? Even before Donald Trump’s astounding victory in the US presidential election no one in America I know spoke of the potential for progressive social and political transformation as they did in the early days of the Obama presidency. The mood in America, as in Britain, France, Sweden and other Western countries, is one of foreboding, even resignation. Destabilised by spree killings, a rising murder rate, Islamist terror, mass immigration, the coarsening of its political discourse and multiple foreign policy failures, America has long since ceased to be a shining symbol of hope. By electing Trump as its president, it has come to represent the obverse. If the implications weren’t so serious for the post-Cold War liberal global order, the outcome could be described as laughable.

The self-mythologising United States purports to be the world’s greatest democracy, the land of the free, in which the tech utopians of Silicon Valley conjure up improbable futures for the rest of humanity (even as African Americans are being incarcerated in record numbers). There is so much to admire about America – its great universities, its capacity for innovation and scientific advance, its wonderful newspapers and magazines and publishing houses, its creative industries. But too many Americans feel betrayed or left behind and too much of the country’s infrastructure – its roads, railways, bridges, public housing stock, schools – is second rate.

For all his vulgarity and bombast, Trump – who will be the first US president never to have held elected office or served in the military – understood that something fundamental had gone wrong in America, which was why his often unhinged tirades against immigration and free trade resonated with a class that felt alienated by liberals’ embrace of identity politics and wearied by the constant, low-level, daily struggle to get by. Through the long, dispiriting campaign, Trump raised their expectations, and now that the Republicans have retained control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, he will have the opportunity to deliver on his boasts and promises. If he fails, as he will, he can blame no one but himself, because the electorate has cleared a path for him. You reap what you sow.

Radical reactionary

There’s no doubt in my mind that Trump is a neo-fascist. He boasts that he will “make America great again”, and his nativist rhetoric consciously echoes that of Charles Lindbergh and the America First isolationists who agitated to keep the United States out of what became the Second World War. Reactionaries such as Trump, writes the American academic Mark Lilla in his new book, The Shipwrecked Mind, “dream of stepping back in history to recover what they imagine was lost”. But what exactly has been lost and by which measure does Trump define greatness?

Lilla has written that “Make X Great Again” is the demagogic slogan of our time, and many march under that banner, from Trumpians to political Islamists. Here in Britain, a longing for a lost though indefinable greatness energises the Hard Brexiteers, with their fantasies of a lost sovereignty (Trump said that his anti-system revolt was “Brexit-plus-plus-plus”).

Professor Lilla draws a distinction between the conservative and the reactionary mind. Reactionaries are, in their way, “just as radical as revolutionaries and just as destructive”. Trump is radical and destructive – in this, he closely resembles Nigel Farage. The furies Trump has unleashed will contaminate American politics for years to come. His triumph will embolden racists and misogynists everywhere.

Living in isolation

How the skies have darkened since that day eight years ago when the president-elect, Barack Obama, spoke so thrillingly of the change that he would bring to the world. We wanted to believe him. I know I did. Now, as we survey the consequences of US failure in Syria and the belligerence and military adventurism of Putin’s Russia, the Nobel Prize Committee’s decision to award Obama its peace prize in 2009 “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples” seems even more strange and premature than it did at the time. That prize was a wager on hope, on the promise of a better tomorrow that never arrived.

In their different ways, the presidential campaigns of Clinton and Trump were reactions to American decline, the weakness of the West and the fragmentation of globalisation. We inhabit a disenchanted world. Hillary Clinton was not a harbinger of hope as Obama had been but her “realism”, especially on foreign policy – she was hawkish on China and spoke of the need to impose no-fly zones in Syria, and her administration would have stood up to Putin – would have been infinitely preferable to Trump’s ignorance and isolationist instincts.

Opposed by a venal, anti-government conservative movement, Clinton was forced to run a grim and attritional campaign. Responding with dignity to Trump’s abusive, demotic style and humiliated by the FBI, she showed grace under pressure. No one would question her fortitude, not even Trump. But Clinton was a desperately poor candidate all the same. To many voters, the Clintons (aka, Clinton Inc) represent the worst of corporate-politico America: in thrall to big finance, secretive, conspiratorial. This was one reason why Bernie Sanders, the veteran socialist senator, emerged as an improbable insurgent to challenge Clinton without ever fully discomforting her during the Democratic presidential primaries.

Sanders’s unabashed socialism was nevertheless an inspiration for many young Americans who yearn for a fairer, more decent and compassionate politics. Their yearning shows there’s a big, progressive-shaped hole in American politics and society – but Hillary Clinton, for all her experience and commitment to public service, could never fill it. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse

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"The land of Gandhi can never be racist": is India in denial about its attitude to skin colour?

“If we were indeed racist, why would we live with the South Indians?" was how one politician addressed the debate. 

When we were kids, my younger brother and I would spend much of our time thinking up new and innovative ways to get under each other’s skin, as siblings often do. One of the most reliable weapons in my brother’s arsenal was a taunt about skin colour - he was quite fair even by Punjabi standards, a fact that he was inordinately proud of. I on the other hand, had a permanent tan. This is now politely referred to as a "dusky" complexion, but back then was just "kaala" (black).

Being older, I generally had the upper hand in this cold war of insults and condescension, but my brother employed this particular tactic to great success for a couple of years. Because it rankled, it really did. No amount of explanation about melanin and sun exposure, or the fact that we were both "brown" in the eyes of the world made a difference. He was fair, I was not, and that was that. We didn’t have the context or the vocabulary to articulate why that minor difference in skin tone was important, but we knew instinctively that it was. It took us years to realise how problematic these little exchanges were. By then, we had  recognised how racism and prejudice about skin colour had wormed its way into our psyches at a young age, even growing up in a fairly liberal household. We laugh about it now, and my brother is more than a little embarrassed about that short phase during his pre-adolescent years. But as recent events have reminded us, for many people in India, racism and colourism is no laughing matter.

Two weeks ago, a video posted on Facebook by the African Students Association of India (AASI) went viral. It showed a mob of 40-odd Indians armed with snooker cues, dustbins and chairs brutally assaulting two Nigerian students inside a mall in Greater Noida, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, just 40km from the national capital, and home to hundreds of students from Africa who study in the city’s many private colleges and universities. This was part of a wave of violence unleashed by residents of the city that saw at least four Nigerian students admitted to the hospital with serious injuries, and countless others being treated for minor injuries. The details of what transpired over that week are as familiar as they are sordid - a missing Indian student, who was later found, and died in the hospital of a suspected drug overdose. Rumours of Africans being "cannibals", a new addition to the long, long list of racist stereotypes about black Africans that are bandied about to justify such violence. Demands that all African residents of the area be kicked out. And eventually, inevitably, mob violence.

The response by the government and the police followed the general SOP for when such attacks happen - and they do, with alarming frequency. There were promises of swift action (which rarely materialises), brazen denials that the violence was motivated by racism or xenophobia (“Criminal not racial” is how External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj described one attack in 2016) and victim-blaming (“Africans are involved in drug-dealing, Africans don’t assimilate”).

Then there is the Gandhi factor. “India is the land of Gandhi and Buddha…we can never have a racist mindset,” declared a pompous Swaraj, conveniently ignoring the fact that Gandhi himself was a proponent of anti-blackness in his early years, separating the South African Indian community’s struggle for freedom from that of the Zulus and writing that “about the mixing of the Kaffirs (blacks) with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly.” The truth is that, despite three centuries of experiencing racial discrimination at the hands of British colonisers, India’s unrequited love affair with whiteness has remained undimmed. We - specifically the North Indians who dominate so much of our national political and cultural discourse - take pride in our "Aryan" heritage, thereby aligning ourselves with global white hegemony. We have internalised the pseudo-scientific European racial theories that were in vogue in the 19th and early 20th century, but have lingered on in our school textbooks long after they were debunked. Indeed, when black Africans in India talk about being treated like a caged animal in a zoo, it’s hard not to make connections with 19th century Europe’s infamous "human zoos".

But while much of India's anti-blackness can be traced back to a colonial hangover, it is also fuelled by our own indigenous strain of "colourism", one that predates European theories of racial superiority. Last week, former Bharatiya Janata Party MP Tarun Vijay went on an Al Jazeera programme to talk about the recent spate of attacks. “If we were indeed racist, why would all the entire south – you know Kerala, Tamil, Andhra, Karnataka – why do we live with them?,” he said. “We have blacks…black people around us.” In his attempt to defend India from charges of anti-blackness, Vijay inadvertently laid bare the full extent of India’s problem with skin colour-based bigotry - our othering of not just black Africans but also of the darker-skinned citizens from our own country. It’s not hard to guess who the "we" in that statement is - the fairer, upper caste North Indian Hindus that form the BJP’s core constituency, and who have for ages thought of themselves as the template for the "true Indian". Everyone else, whether it’s Dalits and lower caste citizens from across the country, or the Dravidian residents of the southern parts of the country (both associated, though not entirely accurately, with darker skin colour), are merely tolerated. These two strains of bigotry - race and caste - combine to create a society where darkness is, at best, treated as a personal failing, something that you must strive to overcome. At its worst, it leads to dehumanisation and, eventually, violence.

Much of the blame for the persistence of such toxic attitudes towards skin colour rest with India’s pop culture and mass media industries. Bollywood, as always, has been a pioneer. For decades, people of darker skin colour have been pushed to the margins, relegated to the role of caricature or villain. Take for example the still iconic song from the 1965 film Gumnaam, in which comedian Mehmood tries to win the attention of Anglo-Indian actress Helen. “Hum kaale hue to kya hua dilwale hain (so what if I’m black, I still love you),” he sings, reinforcing the improbability of a beautiful (read fair-skinned) woman like Helen falling in love with a dark-skinned man. More recently, there was the 2008 film Fashion, in which Priyanka Chopra plays a model whose descent into drugs and depravity finally hits rock bottom when she wakes up one morning next to a black man. There’s also a long history of Indian films featuring "blackface" and racist stereotypes of black Africans, best exemplified by a horrifying scene from 2000 film Hadh Kar Di Aapne, in which… actually, just watch it yourself because I can’t figure out a way to put it into words without throwing my laptop out the window.

Indian television is no different, with dark-skinned actors - especially women - so rarely seen on programmes or advertising, that any advertisement that dares to break the norm is celebrated as groundbreakingly progressive. And then there’s the fairness cream industry, endorsed by a host of top film and television celebrities, with advertisements that inextricably link fairness not just to beauty but also to employability, self-confidence and suitability for marriage. Just take a look at this epic five part tele-commercial by Ponds, appropriately titled White Beauty. The focus on whiteness is relentless, and this colourism runs rampant even as Indian movies and television borrow and steal from black culture at will, even bringing in rap artists like Snoop Dogg and T-Pain to perform on Bollywood songs. It’s another thing that Snoop Dogg - or anyone with the same skin colour - has as much chance of playing the lead in Bollywood as I have of becoming Potus.

In recent years, as Indians outrage about racist attacks against non-resident Indians (NRIs) in the US and Europe and get involved in global conversations about racism and cultural appropriation, many of us have also started turning a spotlight on racism back home. The fairness cream industry is facing increasing criticism, even from high profile actors like Abhay Deol who would otherwise earn big money by appearing in their ads. Explicit racism in film and in advertising no longer goes unchallenged. When former Miss World and current Bollywood royalty Aishwarya Rai appeared in a print ad for a jewellery brand that alluded to 17th century European paintings of noblewomen, complete with emaciated black child servant holding up a red parasol, she was met with a barrage of criticism and outrage that forced the company to withdraw the ad. But as last month’s attacks make clear, this is not nearly enough.

First, the Indian government and our political class needs to acknowledge that racism and anti-blackness are a real problem, instead of trying to brush it under the carpet. Step one would be to bring in a long overdue law against racial discrimination. But as the persistence of caste despite the legal abolition of caste distinctions 70 year ago shows, having laws on the books is not enough. We need massive programmes to sensitise police, bureaucrats and the public at large about the toxic effects of racism and how to counter it. Racist stereotypes in media and public discourse should be shut down, not tolerated or even reproduced by political leaders as they are now. Anti-racist and anti-caste discourse should be an integral part of the school curriculum. Celebrities, activists and civil society needs to be much more vocal in their critique of racist and colourist speech and actions. There are more than enough policy prescriptions out there, if we can find the political will to put them into action. And we must find it soon. Or our kids will continue to grow up with the notion that social worth is tied to where you are on the Fitzpatrick scale, they will continue to weaponise skin colour in schools and in playgrounds. And for those of us with darker skin, whether black Africans or "black" Indians, the possibility of sudden, explosive violence will always lurk around the corner.

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. 

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