USA in Trump times

I resurrect a dead blog…to write again about a visit to the USA.  The last time (and my first time there) was in 2014, in the middle of Barack Obama’s second term.  Much has changed since then, and particularly since, of course, 2016.  A measure of just how much had changed is that when my aunt invited me to come over, I asked, as discreetly as I could, if it was safe.  In that moment, I truly understood where travel advisories issued about safety in India came from. As one from an ethnicity that is in the minority in the US, I felt less certain in the wake of all that had been said and done through the course of a fractious and polarising election and its aftermath…even though I KNOW quite a few of my relatives and friends live there and have reported no reason to worry so far.

I needn’t have worried too much, though, because my itinerary took me to (mostly) blue country throughout (just like last time by the way) – Chicago where my aunt lives, Niagara and Washington DC.  Of these, Niagara county flipped for Trump after years of voting for Democrats, though.  Whilst we walked through Niagara on a very hot afternoon (only mango lassi from an Indian street vendor – 2/3 in Indian style – bailed us out) looking for a place to eat, somebody we asked for directions advised us not to go to a particular part of Niagara.  Was it because of crime issues or was it because it was Trump country?  We could only wonder.

It was in DC, though, that the full import of the Trump presidency hit home – through the overwhelming opposition/disdain towards it from residents and visitors.  Our guide for the free tour of Capitol indulged in many a sly dig at Trump’s expense.  Sample this:  while describing the amount of violence that ensued between Congressmen when Congress was in session in the 19th century, he said that most of us cannot imagine something like this today.  He went on to speculate, “But can that change in the future?”  And smiled naughtily as he shrugged.  While explaining the painting described as Apothesis of Washington that adorns the ceiling of the rotunda, he said that it was meant to depict democracy as something akin to religion in USA, adding that the right to vote is something we have to take very seriously.

A much less subtle message was rammed home on our last day in DC.  On the previous two days, the weather as well as our exhaustion from touring the sprawling Museum of American History had forced us to postpone our walk down to the White House (or about as close to it as security arrangements would let us get to it).  On the last day, my aunt had decided she wanted to spend a couple more hours at the American History Museum, having spent all of the previous day there already (and yes, it DOES deserve that much time, if not more) and we were headed to the Spy Museum.  With our Circulator Bus getting held up for too long at the Lincoln Memorial, we decided against getting down at the Monument bus stop to walk down to the Ellipse.  But the driver stopped the bus there and said you could walk 10 minutes to get a good view of White House from the front and offered anybody who wished to see it to get down here.  She repeated her appeal twice, thrice and none of the (mostly White and many possibly European visitors) passengers in the bus got down.  The genial and venerable African American lady burst out laughing saying, “Nobody wants to see the White House?”

Speaking of African Americans, there was heightened consciousness this time about what it meant to be an African American in the USA.  My cousin (aunt’s daughter) had me read Ta Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me (which was brilliant and, indeed, felt like the ghost of James Baldwin had somehow gotten into Mr Coates). We were frequently invited, if not exhorted, to see the new Museum of African American History in DC.  Another item we could not tick off in our 3 1/2 day stay in that magnificent city, along with the American Indian Museum, the National Art Gallery, the Natural History Museum and so on.  And Circulator bus drivers as well as cabbies discussed the African American condition with us.

They asked me whether we in India were racist (not in as many words) and discriminated on colour (this, they did ask straight out).  Didn’t tell them the truth and instead told them what I personally believe in (which is non discrimination).  Should I have?  I don’t know.  Besides, they probably already knew and were just having fun putting us on the spot.

As in my previous visit, I found many who were incredibly eager to help.  From a co passenger on Lufthansa who offered me her headphones when the flight attendant forgot to hand the inflight headphone package to me only for me to report with embarrassment that I already had my own pair of headphones but was only trying to see if I could, like a typical Indian, get a freebie I was entitled to. To a volunteer at an information center just outside the Smithsonian metro station who generously gave us her HUGE umbrella to run across to a store across the road to buy ourselves umbrellas (it was POURING that evening at DC). To the Circulator Bus drivers who waived off the $1 ticket (no idea why) and ushered us in.

Squaring this country with the one that voted for Trump seems a confounding exercise.  Was it that from the outside I did not understand everything about Trump and what the people who voted him into power saw in him that we do not (just the way we voted for Modi, right?)?  Or was it that I should have gone to Trump country to find out?  Should I have?  Would it have been safe?

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6 Responses to “USA in Trump times”

  1. You Know Who Says:

    *…offered me her headphones when the flight attendant forgot to hand the inflight headphone package to me only for me to report with embarrassment that I already had my own pair of headphones but was only trying to see if I could, like a typical Indian, get a freebie I was entitled to.*

    Haha! That was a good one.

  2. Madan Says:

    Thanks!

  3. Rm Says:

    @Madan:

    I have been following your posts in BR’s blog and admire your views, your take on certain things and your analysis behind them.
    You do not look pro-left, not much pro-right either, if I were to judge.

    I am pro right, but certainly not the type that justify the atrocities the pro right fringe groups indulge in and the radio silence of the leaders. I have been wanting for long to ask some questions regarding Modi and the criticisms against him to someone and to ask it now here seems quite apt.

    To others who may read this, I apologise in advance if my post here seems insensible or potentially offensive. Let me just state my intention is to know Madan’s views alone and nothing else.
    I would also like to disclose my aptitude for political discourse/analysis ( or political knowledge) is indeed poor.

    To start with, I wonder these days why there is so much stinging criticism against Modi, and it is only becoming more and more prevalent as we inch towards the end(?) of his term. It makes me think sometimes is this really the nation that made him win with a thumping majority. If I am not mistaken, the situation is similar with Trump, but then I am given to understand the overall no.of votes from pro-republican US states reached far higher than the overall vote share cutting across other states that facilitated Trump’s victory. My thoughts kind of resonate with ending lines of your post.

    Anyway, back to Modi. I am from Chennai and a Tambrahm. I see two types of Modi critics/ haters.
    1) The ‘thamizh poralees’ type (for a lack of better word and not meaning it derogatorily). A lot of them are my colleagues and friends. Smart, shining and illustrious people who also support the view the Bengal killings of BJP karyakarthas were orchestrated by BJP itself to give TMC a bad name. They start criticising the centre and Modi at the drop of a hat. And most of them ‘Like’ the hate spewing Memes on Modi/ BJP that does rounds in social media.
    I have asked some of them, and they share the view that their hate is justified because the centre is not doing anything for TN. I do not completely disagree with this , but I am not convinced that this justifies the passionate hate they have for Modi and the BJP. I also ask them why they have not expressed such strong dissents when UPA was in power, i get no convincing answer. I only can come to a ‘crude’ conclusion that the anti-tamil justification is only a anti-brahmin stance in disguise( folks in twitter do not bother about disguising it however) due to the underlying subtle but ever present sore spot that Modi and the BJP means empowering Brahmins and pro Hindu groups and sidelining other communities. And the attacks on Modi are stronger in this case since he is being seen as a leader and go-getter and the potential for this premise to become a possibility in TN is only stronger with him.

    2) Liberals: That communists hate Modi is somewhat agreeable but I see common people venerating communism just because to use it as a means to oppose Modi. I wonder more often than not why do liberals across the country oppose Modi. And we have, like, a tonne of them. Just because he is pro-Hindutva and Hindutva is backward and not progressive? Then why majority of these liberals remain apologists for other religions and oppose only Hinduism. Examples for this are abound, with the hypocritical liberal condemnation of Kathua rapes and their silence on crimes by other communities and right to the AIB sexual harassment debacle that is trending now.( I also have to say here a significant bunch of the eminent RW are hypocritical as well).

    I do not support Modi blindly, but I do not understand the reasons opposers of Modi list out.. Election ku munnadi kudutha build up ku yetha performance illa, avar verum atta kathi thannu sonnalavadu paravailla. But to demonise him with unsubstantiated, bordering on bizarre reasons lacking in substance is something I am not able to fathom. Why so much hate against this guy alone, from us who are anyway numb and used to the corruption culture of our mullas.

    In the end,if one thing Modi has achieved for sure in these last 4 years, I would say it is this deep and strong ideological polarisation he has created even among the kuppans and suppans of the common man.

    Would love to know your views.

  4. Madan Says:

    Good to hear from you, Rm. I welcome you to also read my latest on Ilayaraja which will hopefully be the first of many more to come about his work and also other great musicians.

    I am certainly not pro right but not pro left either. I will share something interesting with you. Prior to Trump’s election, whenever I took the political compass test, I returned as a dead centrist with only a small decimal to the left. Which is what I think I am on self analysis. I dislike identity politics and I don’t completely distrust capitalism. At the same time, I don’t completely oppose welfare handouts. At different times, tools from the econ left and right have been used to tide over crises (FDR in the 1930s and Thatcher/Reagan in the 80s for contrasting examples of this). NOW, when I took the test a few months back, I was surprised to find political compass I am slightly, but distinctly, to the left. My views haven’t changed in these last few years. What has is the sharp rightward lurch of the majority of the people. I know to those of a pro right inclination, it feels like they are swarmed and gheraoed by leftists at every turn but it’s not the truth and election results across the world seem to validate this (except Canada and they may swing to the right out of sheer exasperation over Trudeau).

    So, to address this statement of yours: “I wonder these days why there is so much stinging criticism against Modi, and it is only becoming more and more prevalent as we inch towards the end(?) of his term. ” – Well, just yesterday, in our little 10-12 seater office shuttle a debate broke out over Modi and only the two of us including myself spoke ‘against’ him. Couple of people weren’t very overtly for him but also questioned who else was eligible to be PM while a couple of others argued very strongly for him, praising his work.

    Now why did I put the word ‘against’ in single quotes? Because this phenomenon of assuming criticism to be anti Modi, the individual, is very new at least to me in Indian politics. I am not old enough to remember the Nehru/Indira/Rajiv days. The prime ministers of my growing up and onward years were PNR, ABV, MMS and now Modi. IIRC everyone of the first three mentioned PMs received a lot of criticism and it wasn’t necessarily directed at THEM but the govt’s performance. And a large section of those who speak out ‘against’ Modi even today are only doing the same thing. They are questioning the fact that petrol is at all time high prices in Mumbai even though Brent has some way to go before it gets to 100. During UPA-2, Brent had reached 120 and yet taxes collected on petrol were low enough that the end consumer still paid less. This is just one example and I would like to state here that I do not wish to enter into a lengthy debate over what Modi did and did not achieve. People don’t seem to change views easily these days so I feel that debate would be unproductive. I will instead continue to address your question as to the source of criticism.

    So while I acknowledge that there is one section of vociferous critics who do hate Modi for who he is and where he comes from ideologically, I also believe they are a small minority and much of the criticism is coming from the hapless common man who is dissatisfied with the way things are at the four and half year mark. And when they get called names by the many sharp tongued acolytes of Modi on social media, they feel frustrated and their stance hardens. In other words, open minded and patient dialogue between both sides but with benefit of doubt to the intentions of the constructive critic could easily resolve this problem but if I am called Congressi/anti national etc, I am not going to take it lightly.

    In fact – and it may shock and disappoint some of my friends up at BR’s like Anu Warrier to learn this – I voted for Modi in 2014! I was seriously frustrated with Congress for throwing a sincere and highly qualified PM under the bus at the behest of the Gandhi parivar and had doubts about Kejriwal after his antics in the first ill fated term of AAP at Delhi. So I threw my lot in with BJP rather than Modi per se. So when I am told that some people find it fashionable to criticse Modi so that they may be thought of as intellectual, I LMAO. And with each time I hear this, my resolve to never again vote for Modi becomes stronger.

    Why? Because I fear this cult of personality. It is the same cult that led to Indira Gandhi acolytes saying “India is Indira and Indira is India” (on similar lines, Venkaiah Naidu called Modi God’s gift to India, lol) which in turn led to emergency. I would like to act to preserve our fragile republic before the Modi cult too envelops into something dangerous if it hasn’t already.

    So, in totality, if I care about something deeply, it’s not left wing/right wing or socialism/capitalism but about democracy. It is fashionable for some Modi fans to claim that India doesn’t deserve a democracy so if we get a dictatorship, it’s fine. I am not of a similar persuasion and would not like to see the sacrifices of Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Bose, Bhagat Singh among so many others to go in vain only because some people are madly in love with a certain politician. I believe this is also foremost of the concern of many who criticise Modi now. Not that he is the worst performing PM (he’s not though he’s also not even close to what all his acolytes make him out to be) but because he has fostered a dangerous cult of believers who do not easily accept criticism of his govt’s performance and seem to lose temper with frightening rapidity. It is also this cult that has polarised the discourse. You have observed too that the discourse has become polarised. The above is my diagnosis of the reasons why.

  5. Madan Says:

    I would like to add that IF perhaps you did grow up somewhere in TN – I do not know – you may be more used to vitriolic personality politics than I am as someone who grew up in Maharashtra. We did have Bal Thackeray but because he did not aspire to be CM, the identity of CM contenders was less important than the broad camps opposing each other. I do not think TN style personality cult is desirable even for the state, much less for the country.

  6. Rm Says:

    @Madan:

    Thanks for taking time to provide an elaborate response. It is indeed insightful.

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