Even by the godawful standards of our seemingly never-ending annus horribilis, the first presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump on September 29 was an excruciating lowlight. Bluster, bad blood, a stream of slurs, and the callous, casual boorishness of the “most powerful man in the world”, it was another stark reminder of just how degraded the democratic process has become in the United States, with distressing implications for the rest of the world.
Watching along from my home in Goa, it seemed very much like Biden and the debate moderator Chris Wallace were paralysed in an antiquated era of engagement, while the US president rampaged in another register altogether. No one could stop him from interrupting. As has played out throughout his chaotic, bulldozing political career after it began with an astonishing litany of libels against Mexicans in 2015, Trump demonstrated once again that the existing paradigm possesses no way to control or check his assault on it.
“That spectacle left me feeling diminished and demoralised. We should all take a shower” said Ed Luce in the Financial Times live coverage which I was monitoring simultaneously. “That was the most toxic debate that I have ever seen, and there have been many…Imagine watching this debate from Beijing. They should run it live on all Chinese networks. To put it mildly, this is not an advertisement for democracy.”
His point wasn’t missed by the Global Times – Beijing’s comically strident propaganda mouthpiece – which exulted, “This debate was like the country: everybody’s talking. Nobody’s listening. Nothing is learned. It’s a mess.” Its editor Hu Xijin promptly tweeted, “Such a chaos at the top of US politics reflects division, anxiety of US society and the accelerating loss of advantages of the US political system.”
Teetering and vulnerable
It’s hard to ignore the likelihood that Hu is right, because Trump’s calculated carnage amply illustrates what was once unthinkable: American democracy is teetering and vulnerable, on the precipice of a dangerous tipping point. The fall could easily happen. It might already be inevitable. What is more, it has failed to heed repeated warnings from those who lived through exactly this – the collapse of a superpower via internal contradictions – during the disintegration of the USSR and the Eastern Bloc.
“What I’ve learned is that people are addicted to the inertia of their common reality, to the desperate belief that everything shall continue as it is simply because it’s been going fine up to this point,” wrote Aleksandar Hemon in Rolling Stone in February 2016, when Trump was still only an unlikely, extremist candidate. He compared the New York businessman to Serbian war criminal Vojislav Šešelj: “Their discourse is charged by a craving for incoherent, yet symbolic, violence. Their violent incoherence is the message, not the noise.”
Hemon grew up in historic Sarajevo, the famously beautiful and multicultural “Jerusalem of the Balkans” in Yugoslavia. In 1992, he was unexpectedly stranded in the United States, unable to return home due to outbreak of the Bosnian War. His hometown went on to suffer the longest siege of any capital city in the history of modern warfare, and his country fell apart. Painstakingly and most impressively, Hemon made himself into an acclaimed writer in English, winning the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grant” in 2004 for “dramatiz[ing] with wit and dexterity the cultural displacement that he and his characters have endured”. He now teaches creative writing at Princeton.
Earlier this year, Hemon wrote with powerful insight, “The incremental dissolution of the more perfect union and its body politic comes wrapped in a kind of unshocking strangeness – Americans might be able to perceive that what is taking place is exceedingly unusual but it’s difficult to be shocked. Such a state of mind and soul is familiar to those of us who experienced the dissolution of Yugoslavia, just as we know that it exacts a steep price on people’s relation to social reality and/or their shared civic experience.”
He pointed out, “The uncanniness of American nationalism is not exactly new, and that Americans have been lied to so often and so systematically that brazen dissembling is taken to be part of the performance of politics. People, including the lofty pundits of American press and media, have seen it as an aspect of will to power necessary for even entering the political domain and coming up on top. Being shocked at a politician lying and manipulating, the thinking goes, is like being shocked that soccer players foul the opposite team when the ref is not watching. It’s all part of the game. Some of us, however, have seen how that game ends.”
Of course, these are symptoms of virtually the entire swathe of 21st century democracy, because Hemon’s analysis applies with equal validity to – amongst many others – Boris Johnson’s United Kingdom, Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Narendra Modi’s India. Sitting on the Konkan coastline, I felt the shock of recognition in his acute observations that “incessant lying is a way to practice power, while the very absence of any substantial consequences to that lying, however egregious, is a measure of that power” and “nonsensical prolixity annihilates the audience by flooding the discursive field with vacuous language, becoming a choreography to which everyone must dance. The meaninglessness is the bludgeon for enforcing compliance.”
A lifetime of privilege and bullying
Over several years, I have followed Hemon on Twitter with both delight and dread, as he unfailingly hit bullseyes in his take on what is happening in America. Immediately after the Biden-Trump debate, I reached out to ask what he made of the latest shambles atop the showpiece of western democracy, and he responded via email, “I don’t think Trump has thought through his strategies – they’re instinctive, a matter of a lifetime of privilege and practices of bullying, verbal and otherwise.”
Hemon reminded me about the Republican primary debates that signalled Trump’s emergence. “What struck me was that – out of 17 candidates – he was the only one who didn’t bother to offer any kind of clear ideological framework. While all the others talked about the greatness of Reagan, or the small government, or the Bible – putting their own psychopathic tendencies in some kind of social and political context – the only thing Trump offered was unbridled aggression and promises of violence and retribution combined with manifest racism and misogyny.”
Despite this, “the GOP primary voters picked him out of the bunch. In other words, he was elected for destruction and revenge and he is full executing the mandate. The debate with Biden was enacting again the whole choreography. What he and the GOP [the Grand Old Party or Republicans] have figured out is that they need to win without a clear majority, for which they need a committed, fanatical core support willing to do anything to advance their agenda, violence included, and that they need to motivate them primarily. This is why they are fully committed to white supremacy. This is also why they see Covid as a chance – they have better chances in chaos.”
The bottom line is grim, says Hemon, “What I see is a standard operating model of nationalism – to create and escalate conflict because they think they can destroy the opponent and win it. They are in the scorched earth mode. GOP is a revolutionary party [that] will try to go all the way, with or without Trump. There will be no righting of the course. The Trumpists will not back away, and will continue to try and escalate the conflict, to the point of mass violence. This cannot be resolved within the confines of the US political system, as it is obsolescent and weak. It will break, sooner or later. My hope is that something different, and better, will rise from its ashes.”
If that’s going to happen in the United States, with its vaunted institutional strengths, robust opposition forces both within and outside the political sphere, and activist media that still provides an exemplar for most of the rest of the world, what hope could there possibly be for countries like India which have few or none of these advantages?
Here, I couldn’t help but recall what the historian Gyan Prakash told Scroll.in last year, about his motivations for writing the outstanding 2018 Emergency Chronicles, “I could not block out Modi in India and Trump in the United States, not to speak of Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary and Brexit. In all these developments, I saw something very different from the normal ebbs and flows of democracy because what was going on challenged its very foundations. It was evident key institutions – the rule of law, the principle of equality, and the protection of minorities and minority opinion, etc. – were being undermined in the name of national interest…it appeared to me that a book on the history of the Emergency could also speak to the current challenges to democracy.”
Prakash has lived in the United States for nearly four decades, and has served on the Princeton faculty for 30 years, where he is currently the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History. Via email from New Jersey he told me, “The role of debates is overhyped and the médiatisation of politics has turned them like game shows in which one side wins and the other loses; the ‘gotcha’ moments overshadow a substantial discussion of issues. Having said that, this ‘debate’ takes the top place as an all-time display of badness.”
According to Prakash, “Wendy Brown has argued in her book, Undoing the Demos, that neoliberalism’s exaltation of the market principle has made democracy a game of winners and losers. In place of a struggle for common good, democracy has become another arena for the operation of the market logic. This is the context for the context of grievance politics, where those regarded as the source of one’s injuries can be defeated and humiliated. Trump is the master of this politics of grievance (as is Modi). Given this reality, it’s not surprising that Trump treated the debate stage as an arena where he came determined to bully and humiliate his enemies – Biden, the Left, Antifa, Blacks. Even poor Chris Wallace was not exempt from his attacks!”
The new world
Very much on the lines of Hemon’s conclusions, Prakash says our collective predicament is irretrievable. “We are not experiencing just the death of democracy but the emergence of something new,” he said. “I say this because often the liberal response is that the decline must be arrested and the old liberal democracy must be restored. This misses the transformation that has occurred both in society and in politics. Loosely, we refer to this transformation in terms of populism, but that doesn’t fully capture the depth of change. If you take into account the lives uprooted and transformed by the neoliberal economy; the mediatisation of everything; the explosive role of social media as a platform of hate and bigotry; and what Thomas Hansen calls the ‘vernacularisation of democracy’, a more complete picture of the changed world emerges.”
Prakash said, “This is true globally. We can see this happening in both the US and India. If the SSR [Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput] media and state campaign, the Hathras atrocity, and the management of the judiciary are expressions of this process in India, we can see something similar at work in Fox News propaganda, MAGA [Make America Great Again] vigilantism, and [US attorney general William] Barr’s weaponisation of the Justice Department. There are obviously important differences having to do with different histories, but sometimes I can’t decide which one is more ominous.”
Over the past couple of years, it has become common to refer to what the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine is wreaking on Indian democracy as “silent Emergency” but, Prakash said, “I don’t think that quite captures what is going on. I called Indira Gandhi’s Emergency the lawful suspension of the law. Now there is not even a pretence of lawfulness! What the government did with Kashmir, what the Supreme Court has done and not done, suggests that there is no attempt to sheath power in law. Second, Hathras, and before it, the lynchings and murders and intimidations by Hindutva and upper-caste mobs show a coordination between violence on the street and the actions by the state.”
Prakash aded, “There were cases of torture during the Emergency as well, and of course there was the notorious sterilisation campaign. But there was nothing like the current coordination between violence on the street and the state. Besides, Indira Gandhi’s Youth Congress at no point matched the reach and power of Hindutva stormtroopers. Also, Emergency propaganda – Talk Less, Work More, etc – was never taken seriously. Under the BJP regime, on the other hand, the RSS is playing the long game. It has systematically invaded all state institutions, the effects of which India will experience for a long time. For these reasons, I don’t think that ‘silent Emergency’ captures the nature of the current regime’s anti-democratic agenda and practices.”
Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.