Dear Citizens of USA,
A controversial Malayalam cartoon on the US Capitol attack had an unnamed person telephone Donald Trump and say, “Dude, what did you do in four years? You should have amended the Constitution, passed black laws, purchased parliamentarians, gotten judges by intimidation, subjugated courts, packed police and military with party people, burnt old documents to erase history, and constructed a new White House. Stupid friend, what you just did is illegal.”
Such is the legend of the man cartoonist GR Santhosh Kumar did not name, that both detractors and fans alike figured out that it was India’s PM Narendra Modi.
The last time I wrote to you here – four years ago – in a column titled “Surviving Trump: Tips from the world’s largest democracy to the oldest”, I wrote, “You may not know it, but your nation is on the brink of a civil war”. ACLU – American Civil Liberties Union – carried it in a book titled “Rules for Resistance”, I presume – to warn you of what lay ahead if you didn’t change track.
As I saw your Jan 6 insurrection, I realised my worst fears had come true. Some say this is a passing phase and that Joe Biden – who becomes president today – will stitch a divided America. I hope, pray, wish this happens. But I suspect it won’t be enough.
Hence I write this column to warn you that if you don’t watch out, you might find your democracy – like ours –shining on the outside, hollowed inside. I also write to tell you that it need not be this way, that you can survive Trumpism after Trump.
Before your current Vice President Kamala Harris, India and the US were connected by the shared ideals of Trump and Modi: in their contempt of intellectuals and science, autocratic streak, lack of empathy for the weak, preference for equity and rule of law only for their own constituency, hatred of those who demand rights for the marginalised, etc. Sadly because Mr. Modi never gives press conferences and utters the right words in his media and social media appearances, most Indians have yet to see his true colours openly.
That leads me to what I know will be your biggest problem one day: dealing with someone who thinks exactly like Trump but does not behave like him. One who won’t talk openly about his bigotry, who will work in dog-whistles instead, who won’t rape or molest women, who’d go to church and pay his taxes and would be a loyal husband and loving father.
It is easy to hate Trump because of his open bigotry. But your next Trump will not wear a MAGA hat. 8 years of Barack Obama led to a Trump. What will 4 or 8 years of Biden or Harris lead to no matter how unifying they are? For hatred is resilient and can smash in an instant what love takes decades, or centuries to build. And a hatred allowed by a Zukerberg, Pichai, or Dorsey to fester on their networks, spreads faster.
Sacha Baron Cohen had said that Democracy, needs shared truth but autocracy thrives on shared lies. The fellowship of shared lies is on the rise both in India and America. Once peoples’ hatred was a private matter and what they loved and adored was for public consumption. Today, people bind based on shared hatreds, rather than shared loves.
What if I told you that 10 years from now, the future Trumpian president would make even liberals nostalgic for Trump? You’d think that’s absurd. Let me give examples from both America and India.
At the beginning of this millennium, I remember well, President George W. Bush was reviled as the worst, dumbest, evillest president ever. Today, he is leading the old guard Republican charge against Trump and people talk about a lying, yes, but decent president Bush.
In India too, we elected our first far-right government and prime-minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1998. He did some things that were considered against the fabric of the constitution and idea of India and was reviled for those. But when Narendra Modi became PM in 2014, his rule is so divisive that even liberals look fondly back at Vajpayee. The man waiting to be our PM next – Ajay Singh Bisht – molded in Trump's ‘open hatred’ – I suspect, would make us feel the same of Modi someday.
This is how goalposts change, a new normal established.
Let me show you what this new normal could look like in a few years if you don’t resist now. Your Courts will become a rubber stamp to the government, your senate a display board for policies taken rather than a floor for debate. Your opposition would be rendered toothless by a concerted assault of lies via a pliant national media (imagine every major news channel a variant of Fox News) and attacks by enforcement agencies.
Rights activists – would be branded Antifa or some new term would be coined like ‘urban naxal’ or ‘tukde-tukde gang’ in India, arrested and jailed on absurd charges like a plot to assassinate the president that would never be proven but denied bail for half a decade their lives and work would lay in tatters.
What citizens ‘feel’ – dictated by manufactured consent by a sell-out media – would become the barometer for truth rather than facts. Online trolls employed by the government in power will drive the narrative through lies and misinformation on social media. More terms like MAGA and ‘drain the swamp’ would be coined to keep the voter base in check like ‘Acche Din’ and ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas’ in India.
Every national institution, be it your central bank, enforcement agencies like FBI and police or regulatory bodies would be infiltrated by men of ‘ideology’ and weakened to impotency. The transition from a liberal, constitutional democracy with the rule of law applied to all, to an illiberal, majoritarian, polarised one where only the chosen groups – in your case white Americans – will have a shot at justice and governance, would be so complete, it would seem that was always the case.
However, you have been offered an opportunity by the coronavirus. Without it, Trump would have sailed through and all that I mention above would have been an inevitability. But the sacrifice of 402,000 of your citizens to the virus – the same number (407,000)who died in World War II – has given you a fighting chance to change the future, to not end up as deep inside the Rabbit hole as we have in India.
Hence, what you do now will be crucial. But what will you do?
In one of his shows, Bill Maher said: “let’s not confuse 5000 people (who marched on your Capitol) with 74 million (who voted for Trump).” He tells the story of Ashley Babbitt, a 35-year-old Air Force veteran who died after being shot by law enforcement in the Capitol. She had voted for Obama-Biden but came on hard times via a loan with 169% interest. And the misguided solution offered to her: belief in Trump.
Though the backbone is formed by some super-rich supporters, the foot soldiers of Trump - as of Modi – are the Ashleys of the world, fallen on hard times, insecure or disempowered by a host of things. They long to solve their problems but their desperate minds are so fertile, they believe, do anything: storm the Capitol in America, lynch innocents in India.
The law must be pushed to take its course against those who have broken it, but hating 74 million Americans for their thought crimes, will deepen civil unrest. If a drug addict breaks the law the law arrests her and deals as per stipulation. But the rest of the addicts you talk into – even when it seems impossible – going to rehab.
You don’t try to stomp them with liberal extremism. I know liberals don’t see themselves as illiberal. But woke extremism is also a reality. We take self-righteous pleasure in pointing our ruthless fingers at others, forgetting our own flaws, slips. We are good judges for others' mistakes but efficient lawyers for our own.
Martin Luther King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” The woke take it as a justification for riot. But this is an invitation to hear the unheard. While fighting racism, don’t turn into a reverse racist either. Talk to everyone. Gentle talking heals, pointing fingers of accusation divides. As Mohandas Gandhi said: hate the sin, love the sinner.
That is the way to healing. Something I took years to understand, years to realise that in my way, I was a woke-extremist as well. Change begins at home. YOU have to change, heal your insecurities while you tackle those in others.
People drunk on what in India is known as ‘bhakti’ – the devotion of a cause or person they think is right – need guidance not hatred. Like someone said, “When tempted to fight fire with fire, remember that the fire department uses water.”
Through the ages, demagogues, and dictators – be it on the right or the left – have planted splinters of hatred in the minds of people. Like a pied-piper, they have led them to their doom. The way to reach them is not through emotional and social distancing but kind engagement, caring, sharing a meal like Ruth Bader Ginsberg did with Antonin Scalia.
This document, among many others, highlights how your radicalised right-wing terrorists adopt tactics of and show appreciation for those used by al-Qaeda. In India similarly radicalised right-wing zealots have shot dead rationalists, bombed mosques, fired at peaceful protestors.
Trump may be gone today, but tomorrow you’ll have a whole galaxy of Trump-protégées who’ll defy the gravity of facts by new stories they cook up. Donald Trump is the trailer of a film you can still choose not to watch, unlike us Indians who have paid too heavy a price to walk out in the middle of our shit-show.
India and the US have long been connected by the umbilical cord of justice, fairness, liberalism, democracy, and decency. Today is a day of celebration for we are now also connected by your Vice President Kamala Harris. It is an important day in the history of not just the US & India but of democracy in the world. Because the fight Harris has gotten herself into, the fight the weak and marginalised in India are fighting against an increasingly deaf and oppressive government, is a fight that will determine the shape of this century, and the next.
I wish you, and us here, all the best of unity in the fight of our lives.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)