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Trump and Modi: Illiberal Birds of a Feather?

Both subscribe to the idea that majorities rule and that their respective nations' identities must be preserved at all costs.
Trump and Modi: Illiberal Birds of a Feather?

President Trump definitely has a kindred spirit in India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. Indeed, the world is waking up to the reality that kindred spirits around the world—defined as right-tilting, pro-business, populist-nationalists—are numerous. In the billions, in fact.

To be sure, not everyone in India likes Modi; 17 people were killed in anti-government protests during Trump’s visit. Similarly, not everyone in America likes Trump. Yet the fact that both men are in power—and Modi was re-elected last year in a landslide—is proof that their political platforms have considerable appeal. Indeed, the list of countries boasting populist-nationalist governments around the globe is long, including Australia, Brazil, Hungary, Israel, and the Philippines. Even the once-staid United Kingdom is now led by that rumbustious Brexiteer, Boris Johnson.

To be sure, many of these countries—including the U.S.—have plenty of liberal strength. In 2018, the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives from Trump’s Republicans. And none of the aforementioned countries are dictatorships; many are better defined, in the formulation of Hungary’s brainy leader, Viktor Orbán, as “illiberal democracies.”

We might note that these illiberal democrats don’t fear elections; they welcome them, because populist-nationalists know that they need the people’s will to overcome the opposition of entrenched bureaucracies and legacy institutions.

So now the leaders of the two largest countries in this grouping, the U.S. and India, have joined together in a remarkable display of bonhomie. Someday we might look back at this joining and call it the beginning of the Populist-Nationalist International.

The original International—formally the International Workingmen’s Association, founded in London in 1864—was composed mostly of communists. Their stated goal, per Karl Marx, was that the workers of the world would unite and throw off the chains of nationalism, as well as capitalism. Of course, it never worked out that way. In 1914, the workers of Europe mostly sided with their respective governments and fought World War I.

In 1917, the Russian Revolution brought a new burst of internationalist enthusiasm. Yet it soon became apparent that Bolshevism was mostly a cover for Russian nationalism.

After World War II, the idea of liberal internationalism was revived by the United States. In fact, it was given new life in the form of international institutions, such as the United Nations, and of international documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In those days, and for decades thereafter, the U.S. was fully committed to upholding this liberal order. We were willing to fight wars for the freedom of other countries, and we were willing to open our markets for the economic benefit of other countries.

To be sure, there were always dissident figures protesting this liberal internationalist system, on both the right and the left, including Robert Taft, George McGovern, Ross Perot, and Pat Buchanan. Yet none of them were able to put together a politically effective counter-narrative.

In the meantime, India had its own version of liberal internationalism, based on the asceticism and democratic socialism of Mohandas Gandhi and his followers. It would soon become a leader in the Non-Aligned Movement, which aimed to walk a middle path between American capitalism and Soviet communism.

Liberal internationalism reached its peak in the ’90s and early ’00s, when the U.S., having prevailed in the Cold War, seemed committed to promoting liberalism at gunpoint, from Haiti and Serbia to Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet soon enough, as we know, all those high hopes—sometimes encased in the term “neoconservatism,” although they weren’t at all conservative—came crashing down. And with that crash came the rise of the illiberal Trump.

In the meantime, in India, the old liberal order was also coming undone. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had been gaining strength for years, seeking to assert Hindutva (Hindu consciousness) in a country that was overwhelmingly Hindu.

Perhaps the hinge moment for modern India was the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, committed by Muslim infiltrators from Pakistan, which left hundreds killed or wounded. “26/11” was India’s version of 9/11, and it led most Indians to conclude that a tougher stance toward Pakistan, in particular, and Muslims, in general, was needed. So once again, the crash of liberal hopes led to the rise of an illiberal, Modi.

Now, Trump and Modi, those two illiberals, have found delight in each other’s company. During his visit, Trump was full of praise for the Indian leader, whom he called “tough”—that being the ultimate compliment in Trumpworld. And on worldwide TV, Trump couldn’t resist a little campaigning to the folks back home, as when he said, “Our borders will always be closed to terrorists and any form of extremism.”

Yet mindful also of his friend, Trump added, “Every nation has the right to secure and control borders.” This is surely a thesis statement for both Trumpism and Modism, and the American was happy to further conjoin the two, adding, “The United States and India are committed to working together to stop terrorists and to fight their ideology.” For good measure, the two countries staged a joint military exercise—which Trump hailed as “something to behold”—dubbed “Tiger Triumph.”

Yes, Trump’s speech included some earnest rhetoric about India being “the place where millions upon millions of Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs and Jains, Buddhists, Christians, and Jews worship side by side by side in harmony.” Yet what was truly notable about Trump’s speech was the absence of any expression of concern about either India’s cementing its control over the disputed province of Kashmir or of its new citizenship law. Such expressions of concern are exactly the sort of rule-of-law/human-rights-ish caveats that the State Department would have persuaded a more liberal president to include—yet as we know, Trump ain’t no liberal.

In the shared Trump-Modi worldview, it’s the majority that makes the rules. So Trump’s Middle East “peace plan,” for instance, is a frank concession—maybe proclamation is the better word—that Israel is going to decide what the Palestinians get.

In India, the Hindus are the majority—and they know it. So Hindutva must prevail. As one of Modi’s colleagues in the BJP, Ravi Kishan, an action film star-turned-lawmaker, explained his thinking to The New York Times last year, “There are Muslim countries, there are Jew countries, everybody has their own identity. And we are a billion-plus, right? We must have one identity.”

It might be worth noting that a majority-rules sentiment, of a kind, is the rule in that region. India’s arch-rival, Pakistan, is hardly a place of liberal tolerance and minority rights; indeed, the very name “Pakistan” comes from the Urdu words for “Land of the Pure.” Meanwhile, in neighboring Burma, the majority Buddhists are expelling the Muslim Rohingya.

And the strongest power in Asia, China, is perhaps the most nationalist—and least democratic—of all. The communists have never been tolerant of freedom, human rights, or Christianity, and of late they have added a new dollop of suppressive ethnic majoritarianism in Tibet and Xinjiang, as local populations are subsumed by Han Chinese. Then there’s Hong Kong, which seems to be next in line to be crushed.

So in this rough neighborhood, should Modi’s India aspire to some elevated state of human rights and ecumenicalism? Nah.

Now we might ask: is illiberal populist-nationalism the wave of the future? That’s hard to know, since in America, at least, the illiberal regime is not well instantiated—and the next opportunity for democratic regime change is just nine months away.

Indeed, if Bernie Sanders stays on his path to the Democratic Party’s nomination—and if, perhaps, the coronavirus takes a bad bounce here in the U.S.—we could be seeing, at least in this country, a substantial jag to the left.

Of course, Sanders is so far to the left that it’s hard to call him a liberal. And his flying wedge of hardcore supporters seem, in their left-wing way, to be even less illiberal.

So maybe that’s the one safe bet to make about the short-term future: there’s not much liberalism left.

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