U.S. President Donald Trump answers questions about his response to the violence, injuries and deaths at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville as he talks to the media in the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York, on Tuesday. Reuters
Race-based politics wins votes and politicians know that well. Nothing can assert this political truism than the much criticised response of the United States President Donald Trump to Saturday’s clashes at Charlottesville in West Virginia. The controversy indicates that race-based politics or identity politics, however contemptible it is, has come to stay even in so-called liberal societies.
If identity politics is defined as a tendency for people of a particular religion, race or social background to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics, such politics is present not only in the United States, but also in every country that is ethnically diverse and seemingly democratic. Countries such as Britain, France, Germany and Australia are blighted by this reprehensible racist politics practised by far-right extremists.
Sri Lanka is no exception. Can a Tamil or Muslim become the President or Prime Minister of Sri Lanka? Technically, yes. But practically it is a tall order, given the racial prejudices found in every society. Or it can happen only in a dream within a dream of those whom dream of the dawn of a liberal Sri Lanka where differences based on race, religion, caste or social status do not play a role in the election of a legislator or a leader. The closest the country went in that direction was when the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 2004 mulled the appointment of Lakshman Kadirgamar as prime minister. But she succumbed to racism-driven political pressure and let principles lose the race.
"Electing legislators and leaders on the strength of their racial, religious or caste identity is the anti-thesis of meritocracy or merit-based democracy"
Besides race and religion, Sri Lanka is also beset by caste-based identity politics. It is disheartening to note that in this age of enlightenment, caste still plays a key role in nominations to elections and in deliberations on delimitations.
In India, the world’s biggest laboratory for identity politics, people from minority communities have become presidents. Manmohan Singh from the Sikh community, which forms just two percent of India’s population, was Prime Minister of India from 2004 to 2014.
Though India’s examples are praiseworthy, identity politics’ undercurrents are apparent behind the façade of secularism. The political tolerance seen among the majority community towards the occasional election of a minority community member – a Muslim, a Sikh or a Dalit-- to the office of the president probably stems from the fact that the India’s president wields no real powers. He or she is only a titular head and acts on the advice of the Cabinet.
The choice of Manmohan Singh as prime minister came as a compromise in the face of a wave of racial outrage against Italian-born Sonia Gandhi. Among those found refuge in racism to oppose Sonia Gandhi becoming the prime minister were the leaders of the Bharatiya Janatha Party, the main partner in the present ruling coalition. The real victory for India’s secularism will be when a Muslim or a Dalit – the so-called untouchable -- becomes the prime minister and when communal politics that killed even Mahatma Gandhi is dumped in the dustbin of history.
Electing legislators and leaders on the strength of their racial, religious or caste identity is the anti-thesis of meritocracy or merit-based democracy where leaders are elected not because of their race, religion or caste, but because of their qualifications, capabilities, expertise and experience.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, like Trump, thrived on race-based politics. He believed that by projecting himself as the protector of Sinhala Buddhist interests and by wooing at least 75 percent of the Sinhala Buddhist votes, he could remain president forever.
This explained his failure to crack the whip on racist elements who, encouraged by his regime’s patronage, took the law into their hands and attacked Muslims and Christian places of worship. But at the same time, the Rajapaksa victories at the 2005 and 2010 presidential elections and many other elections in between are no indication of a reflection of racism in the Sinhala Buddhist polity.
Similarly, in the United States, the election of Trump as president does not mean all those 62 million people who voted for him were racists, though it is a fact that white supremacists overwhelmingly campaigned for him and voted for him.
Trump’s victory was to the racists what blood was to Count Dracula. His victory has woken up the racist vampire. His repugnant tweets this week expressing tacit support to neo-Nazi groups on the pretext of protecting heritage and history have given a new lease of life to the dying wizards of Ku Klux Klan.
At an impromptu news conference in New York on Tuesday, a dark day in US history, Trump said, “I think there’s blame on both sides”. He added there were “very fine people” among the fascists and claimed that “not all of those people” at the rally were neo-Nazis or white supremacists “by any stretch.”
Then, referring to Saturday’s clashes in which one anti-fascist protester was killed when a white racist rammed his car into the crowd, Trump asked, “What about the alt-left that came charging at?” The outrageous remark was tantamount to equating Hitler with the Jews whom he gassed. No US President has stooped to such low levels in defending racists. But Trump has, because he counts on their support for his 2020 reelection. To his credit, the US economy has performed relatively well, and Trump believes that the white vote formula which worked in 2016 will also work in 2020.
The fact that alt-right supporters carried symbols of racism without any compunction, shouted racist slogans and clashed with those who stood against racist politics casts serious doubts on the United States’ ability to emerge as an enlightened society. It is a slur on the US Constitution, regarded as the best man-made document the world has ever seen. There were, however, hopes in the First Amendment that kept the church and the state separate, in Abraham Lincoln’s declaration abolishing slavery in 1864 even at the cost of a civil war, in Martin Luther King’s historic speech declaring that all men are created equal, and in Barack Obama election as the country’s first black president (in 2008) and his reelection (in 2012).
But at the same time, we also saw in recent years ‘black lives matter’ protests in the US in the wake of the killings of several unarmed black people by white police officers. Islamophobia, which has been on the rise since 9/11 terror attacks, have more or less become official policy after Trump’s travel ban on Muslims. Since Trump’s election, even anti-Semitism has been on the rise, despite Trump’s open Israeli bias. What’s more, Trump has also brought former Breitbart News head Stephen Bannon, an alt-right advocate, into the White House as chief strategist.
It appears that Trump is fast losing the legitimacy to be the President of the United States, if he has already not lost it. Should we remind that Trump won the 2016 election because of the Electoral College system not due to popular votes, which was won by Hillary Clinton by nearly a three million majority?