The incubatory period of the gale of nativist populism , which swept the Western world, in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century, could be held to be the time period between 1980’s and 2015(roughly speaking). This datum or period entailed profound structural change(s) of an economic, political and cultural nature. Going under the terminological rubric of globalization- a large, historical megatrend, which had precursors in history- it constituted a progressive denouement of history in the sense of upending paradigms . Disaggregated, globalization in its 20th century avatar, not only entailed the clichéd compression of time and space but also displaced familiar markers and certainties. These included the dilution of the Westphalian concept of sovereignty which took the form of people flows, capital flows, the displacement of the nation state from its hallowed status as a closed container of homogenous people among other things, the beginning of the revolutionary impact of Information, and Communication Technologies on the very fabric of societies and polities, the deregulation and denationalization of economies, to name the most salient of structural trends that then gained momentum.
These changes of almost a revolutionary nature , to repeat, upended past paradigms and familiar markers of societies, polities and cultures. (To make a digression, I was a beneficiary of these momentous events and changes even though serendipitously: I was dispatched by my worried family when Kashmir was burning in the nineties to the Western world. I was able to wander around the West precisely because these changes were occurring. Obiter Dictum, I was fortunate enough to witness, observe and experience both the upsides and downsides of these momentous events. I have been, in retrospect and hindsight , only enriched by the cumulative experiences accruing from globalization , its contents and discontents).
Given that certainty is almost a psychic and perhaps even emotional need for humans, across time and space, the very changes that globalization was leading to, the displacement of familiar markers , gradually but inexorably, appeared to create a certain disquiet in the centre of gravity and pioneer of the wave of globalization- the Western world. People flows, for instance, into parts of the West, brought “different” and unfamiliar cultures into contact with Western societies. While this led to the idea and practice of multiculturalism( albeit in weak form), but the fact remained that barring functional interaction, Western societies became kind of divided societies with the White superstructure of these societies tolerating difference but not really or entirely accepting it( quite naturally perhaps). At another level, the deindustrialization of advanced economies that globalization entailed, complemented by the breaking and dispersion of the value and supply chain of mega firms, entailed structural changes in the labor markets of Western economies. While consumers benefited, but many jobs migrated to the East, creating angst amongst a certain strata of Western societies. In the meantime, the certainties of the Cold War were shattered by the September 11 attacks on the United States adding insecurity and fear to the evolving uncertainties.
Cumulatively, these changes and the fears and uncertainties they begat, created a longing for the past paradigms and certainties in the West. If a philosophical analogy might be drawn, there appeared to be a certain Sartrian hole or void in the Western consciousness ( albeit in a different version or nature than Sartre had delineated) that was defined by fears and insecurities. The very fluidity that this void engendered meant and entailed a craving for the past or a more certain world. While the angst was felt widely and deeply across Western societies but was diffused and rather amorphous, it was only clearly articulated and voiced by Donald Trump. The noise in the minds of many people in the United States mistook the man as the medium and the message and many people responded to his siren song. What Trump essentially offered was certainty.
The form that Trump’s assurances of certainty took was xenophobic, nativist , anti- globalization diatribes. In essence, Trump , falsely and meretriciously, promised Americans to take them back to the world and its certainties that they craved for. Trump’s disingenuous and false promised resonated with many Americans, opened fault lines in America and polarized the country. But, as alluded to, Trump’s populism was based on patent falsehoods and illusions. His rhetoric might have led to a feel good factor amongst certain people and his promises might create an illusion of certainty, but he cannot and will not be able to roll back the world that was initiated in the 1980’s.
The changes and events that have been set in motion are not merely of a structural nature but these are part, parcel and grist and mill of a historical process. The rise of ethno-nationalism, reversals in/of globalization, rise in protectionism and mercantilism, foreign policy revisionism and reversals thereof might be the flavor of contemporary times, so to speak, but these, given the nature and direction of history are cyclical. That is, perhaps like peaks and troughs in a business cycle, these might have peaked and Trump’s assumption of the highest office of the United States might reflect this, but these themes will naturally and inevitably trough. And , after a period of adjustment, which might be wrenching, things will revert to normal. All this is not vain hope or merely wishful thinking but constitute the gravamen of history. If history teaches us anything , it is that , in the affairs of the world, nothing is permanent. As the Sufi saying goes, “ this too will pass”. The world will revert to “normal”. The new normal of the brave new world will, however, be that the only certainty will be uncertainty. What we, as a collective humanity, would need are new tools- intellectual, emotional and practical- to negotiate the new world. Once we arm and equip ourselves with a new compass, we will discover much to our delight, that Trump and the Trumpian world was an aberration that would be studied by historians of the future as an oddity.
—The author can be reached at: [email protected]