Once, there was a “madman” in charge of the Oval Office by the name of Donald Trump. Even though he had to leave the White House about three years ago, he might not be written off. You can’t help but notice him, whether you like him or not. He is very much present in American politics and society as well as on the international scene, where he has resurrected and manifested in multiple avatars. Trump is different.
He is one of the three US presidents to face impeachment and the only president to be impeached twice. Being the first US president, past or present, to be so charged, Trump was charged with several crimes in a federal indictment. Trump was arrested, the second such occurrence after President Ulysses S. Grant was arrested for speeding in a horse-drawn buggy near the White House in 1872. Trump is the first US president in history to have had his mug-shot taken in criminal proceedings. No other American president has declined to step down at the conclusion of his term, not even after a contentious election. However, following his defeat to Joe Biden in 2020, Trump expressed no desire to vacate the White House.
Trump, undoubtedly, is a major architect of today’s post-truth era. Although he was eventually barred from several social media platforms, it is interesting how, over time, and partly because of the magical power of social media in recent times, Trump has been able to successfully blur the line between “real” and “fake” for the public. And Trump still remains a strong favourite among his fellow Republicans. One of the many books on Donald Trump was authored by Tim Alberta, the chief political correspondent for Politico Magazine. The rollicking insider’s account of the creation of the modern Republican Party is presented in Alberta’s 2019 New York Times bestseller, “American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump.”
The book explains how a decade of cultural upheaval, populist outrage, and ideological warfare left the GOP open to a hostile takeover by the unlikeliest of insurgents: Donald J. Trump. Mike Pence once confided that he “loathed Trump,” while South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham described him as “a race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot.” Subsequently, they and their allies engaged in some slavish bootlicking, of course. Trump, however, kept on solidifying his ideological foundation.
For example, during his tenure as US president, he vigorously nominated as many judges as he could to various courts. There were 234 Article III judgeship nominees by Trump that the US Senate had to confirm. These included three associate justices (Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett) on the US Supreme Court, 54 judges for US courts of appeals, 174 judges for US district courts, and three judges for the US Court of International Trade. These judges have a lifetime appointment, as per rules. These courts render important rulings, and occasionally historic decisions too, that fundamentally alter the character of the country and its society. And, in America, judges are often ideologically very loyal to the appointing regime.
Therefore, Trump might have had an enduring effect on how American society would evolve for the next many decades, at the very least. He is no longer in office, and the results of his leadership in the 2022 midterm elections were disheartening. However, it’s astounding to see that Trumpism – his beliefs, whatever they may be – is rising to prominence in many regions of the world. As a result, several right-wing Trump-like politicians are emerging across the globe. When Trump was president, there were Trump-alikes too; it seemed more natural at that juncture. One may remember that the US and the UK were led by two remarkably similar figures during a period of political unrest and polarisation in Trump and Boris Johnson. Similar to Trump, Johnson is a charismatic populist who has turned immigration restrictions into major concerns. On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump made a well-known pledge to build a wall on the Mexican border in order to deter illegal immigration. Johnson led the Brexit movement in Britain, promising to reclaim sovereignty over the country’s borders by pulling out of the European Union.
Next was Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro. Comparisons between Bolsonaro and President Trump have been inevitable given Bolsonaro’s far-right platform, Trump-like demeanour, and disruptive identity. On 8 January 2023, even after he had lost the election, followers of the former Brazilian president stormed and ransacked important government buildings in Brasilia. In scenes reminiscent of the rebellion in Washington, DC, on 6 January 2021, Bolsonarists demanded that the results of the October 2022 Brazilian election be reversed. In recent times, Trumpism has been making an imprint in Latin America and mainland Europe.
For instance, the shocking election results in the Netherlands have caught Europe off guard. Far-right populist Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party, with a policy that is anti-Islam, antiimmigration, anti-European Union, and sceptical of Ukraine, earned an unexpectedly big win in the Dutch national vote. This is commonly referred to as a “Trump moment” in the Netherlands, demonstrating that populism is still an issue in Europe. In fact, Wilders is known as the “Dutch Donald Trump.”
He has faced numerous death threats from extremists, been found guilty of insulting Moroccans, and in 2009, the British government forbade him from entering the country on the grounds that he posed a threat to “community harmony and therefore public security.” Trump is also embracing Javier Milei, Argentina’s newly elected president. Milei is a wild-haired, chainsawwielding self-described “anarcho-capitalist” who is dubbed by his supporters as “the madman.” During his campaign, Milei frequently fuelled comparisons to Trump with his anti-establishment rants, pro-gun stance, antiabortion proposals, and abrasive style.
He even praised Trump in an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson and promoted unproven theories about election fraud in his own race before he won. Throughout the campaign, many of Milei’s followers frequently wore “Make Argentina Great Again” hats and T-shirts, parroting Trump’s catchphrase. It’s unknown if Trump and Milei will become friends, the way Trump did with Bolsonaro, the former Brazilian president who is widely dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics.”
However, Milei, the “Donald Trump of Argentina,” undoubtedly shares many traits with the former US President. Many people wondered whether Mussolini had been revived when the far-right populist and nationalist Giorgia Meloni became prime minister of Italy more than a year ago. Political analysts got busy parsing if she was fascist, neo-fascist, or post-fascist. However, Italian philosopher and political activist Lorenzo Marsili noted in a Guardian piece that Giorgia Meloni is “no Mussolini – but she may be a Trump.” Thus, it may be evident that Trump has left a far more significant and durable legacy than the majority of contemporary world leaders, including his fellow Americans.
Let contenders for the GOP presidential candidature in 2024, such as Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, or Vivek Ramaswamy, square off in debates. Despite skipping these debates, “a madman with millions of followers” is still the favourite to win the Republican nomination. It’s highly probable that Trump and Biden will compete on 5 November 2024. And regardless of whether Trump re-enters the White House, Trumpism would continue to dominate the US. There are strong indications that its footprint is expanding elsewhere as well.
(The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.)