The Divided States: Trump’s inauguration and how democracy has failed

Donald Trump and his demonisation of minorities are not the exception in US history – they are its logical conclusion. Pankaj Mishra examines the dream of the multiracial democracy, and America’s failure to realise it

Pankaj Mishra: Friday, January 13, 2017

Never in human history have so many diverse peoples lived together as in our time. Nor has the appeal of democracy ever been so widespread. The promise of equal rights and citizenship held out by modern society has been universally embraced, especially keenly by people long deprived of them. But, as Donald Trump, the favoured candidate of white supremacists, becomes president of the United States, the quintessential multicultural democracy, the long arc of the moral universe, as Martin Luther King called it, does not seem to be bending to justice.

Trump came into political prominence accusing the first black president of the United States of being foreign born; he rose to supreme power stigmatising Mexicans as rapists and Muslims as terrorists. His election victory was engineered by Steve Bannon, the executive chairman of Breitbart News, an online site notorious for its antisemitism, racism, misogyny and xenophobia. The joint arrival of Trump and Bannon in the White House, where they will enjoy nearly unlimited power, completes a comprehensive recent rout of the founding principle of the modern world: that, as the revolutionary phrases of 1776 had it, “all men are created equal”, entitled to the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.

Hatemongering against immigrants, minorities and various designated “others” has gone mainstream universally – even in Germany, whose post-Nazi politics and culture were founded on the precept “Never Again”. An era of separatism, in which people barricade themselves in fortresses, united only with those who look and speak like them, has unexpectedly dawned. Back in 1993, the suggestion from Gianfranco Miglio, the intellectual theorist of Italy’s Northern League, that “civilised” Europe should deploy the atavistic nationalism of “barbarian” Europe (the east) as a “frontier guard to block the Muslim invasion” would have seemed preposterous. Today, the demagogues ruling Hungary and Poland claim to be the sentinels of a Christian Europe threatened by Muslim refugees and immigrants. Brexiters in the UK, imitating Tory tactics in London’s mayoral election, conjured up minatory visions of foreigners. A near-majority in the Jewish population of Israel wants the country’s Arab citizens to be expelled. Geert Wilders’ demand for mass deportations of Muslims may help him become prime minister of the Netherlands.

White nationalists in both Europe and America revere Vladimir Putin, who openly rails against “so-called tolerance”, and who inaugurated his regime – and his quest for an “organic” Russian community – with a vicious assault on Chechnya. In India, the world’s largest democracy, Hindu supremacism feeds off a relentless ostracising of minorities. The Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is trying to consolidate his support by encouraging attacks on Turkey’s Kurdish citizens. Politicians in Sri Lanka have flourished at the expense of a Tamil minority, which, traumatised by a massacre in 2009, is now routinely victimised by discriminatory policies. Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, continues to draw political dividends from his persecution of Hutus. Assaults on religious and ethnic minorities enjoy broad sanction in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. The much-celebrated advent of democracy in Myanmar now seems to have been a signal for ethnic cleansing.

It was not so long ago that free trade and the “magic of the market”, in the exuberant phrase of the Financial Times commentator Martin Wolf, seemed to be bringing about the benign homogenisation of all human societies. As Louis Vuitton opened in Borneo and the Chinese turned into one of the biggestconsumers of French wines, it appeared only a matter of time before free trade and consumer capitalism were followed by the rule of law, the enhanced use of critical reason, the expansion of individual freedom and the tolerance of diversity. Instead, the world at large – from the US to Indonesia – is undergoing a militant tribalisation. The new demagogues combine xenophobia with progressivist rhetoric about decent housing, efficient healthcare systems and better schools. Insisting on linguistic, religious, ethnic, and racial differences, they don’t just threaten free trade, or the globalist dream of achieving cosmopolitan unity through intensified commerce and digital communications. They seem to be deforming nothing less than the secular and egalitarian ideals of modernity.

The emphasis today on cultural difference is unquestionably a response to the painful experience of globalisation

The deformations are particularly ominous in the US, a primarily immigrant country. The abolition of slavery, and an influx of immigrant labour from China, Japan, Ireland, Russia and Germany in the 19th century, turned the US into what Walt Whitman called a “teeming nation of nations”. American politicians and publicists of varying political commitments have since insisted that they are engaged in building a multiracial “city upon a hill”, a country that, dedicated to equal rights and potential for all its citizens, would be an example to all people on earth. Their claims to a quasi-providential mission have been strengthened by the fact that many among the huddled masses around the world, as well as new immigrants in the country, have eagerly wished to be American.

It is also true that the American ideal of the melting pot appears to have little scope for an organic community of the kind Putin, or Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage invoke. Yet the treacherous fantasy of a homogenised citizenry has repeatedly erupted in the US; and this time it threatens democracy everywhere in the world.

The emphasis today on cultural identity and difference is unquestionably a response to the painful and bewildering experience of globalisation. Those vowing to “take back control” from unaccountable technocracies and opaque financial markets hope to reconstruct a political space by forging afresh the sovereign “people” – a political project that is most quickly achieved by identifying the “enemies” of the people. Ethnic and religious minorities have always been scapegoats for the suffering inflicted by impersonal markets – the word antisemitism was coined in the late 1870s during a severe economic downturn when demagogues channelled mass rage at Jewish populations.

But this explanation has an even more disturbing aspect, which we should not flinch from. The identification and demonisation of racial and ethnic “others” is far from being an aberration in liberal democracy. Nor is it merely a pathology unleashed by economic shocks. Rather, such injustices are central to democracy, as conceived and practised for much of modern history, and they are inseparable from liberal ideals of reason and progress.

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The African American thinker WEB Du Bois had diagnosed the built-in contradictions of democracy and liberalism as early as the 19th century. In his view slavery had violently coerced African