How Donald Trump is unleashing the demons of the Third World

Some ultra-nationalists abroad look at Donald Trump and see a hero

Hindu Sena members conduct rituals on Trump's behalf.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Saurabh Das)

To Donald Trump, Hindu Sena probably means nothing. Is it a new casino in Atlantic City? Actually, it is a Hindu nationalist group in India that recently held a havan — a public prayer — in the heart of New Delhi for Trump's victory in November. Sena members smudged vermilion on the forehead of his posters, lit candles, and chanted Sanskrit shlokas — verses — from Hindu scriptures imploring Gods Shiva and Hanuman to bless his campaign.

This would be odd even if Trump spoke well of India. Instead, he habitually talks smack. India is still struggling to lift a third of its population from abject poverty, thanks in part to its four-decade-long self-imposed exile from global markets. But in Trump's book, it is "ripping off" America. He has promised to bring back outsourced "American jobs" (because, you know, jobs come endowed with nationalities and Americans shouldn't have to compete for them) and mocked the accent of Indian call center workers. What's more, he plans to make it harder for Indian IT companies such as Infosys to do business in America by making the high-tech H-1B visas they rely on more costly to use and harder to get.

So why are Hindu nationalists, usually so quick to take offense even when none was intended, burning incense for Trump — rather than effigies of him? One simple reason: He shares their antipathy towards Muslims. But its not my enemy's enemy is my friend kind of thing. As far as they are concerned, if the most successful country on the planet votes for Trump's anti-Muslim platform, it'll be a vindication of everything they've long believed but haven't been able to openly push.

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America may survive the Trump presidency without degenerating into barbarism and bloodshed in this time of heightened worldwide religious tension. It has an established liberal democracy with firmly entrenched protections and norms of civilized behavior. But Hindu Sena's exultations suggest that it's an open question whether the developing world, especially a young and fractious democracy like India, can.

Hindu Sena is a fringe organization. But resentment against Muslims — about 14 percent or 170 million of the country's population — runs pretty deep in India's Hindu majority and bursts into spasms of anti-Muslim violence with disturbing regularity. Among the worst episodes occurred in the Indian state of Gujarat after 9/11 when anti-Muslim sentiment was rising in the world. Former U.S. President George Bush managed to contain passions and avoid mass violence against Muslims at the time. But a year later in Gujarat, where Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was then chief minister, Hindu goons, some associated with Modi's own party, unleashed unspeakable horrors, slaughtering more than a thousand innocent Muslim men, women, and children.

Modi, himself a Hindu nationalist, managed to get elected prime minister in 2014 despite the Gujarat pogrom. But it did leave a permanent stain on his record. The big question going forward, however, is what kind of treatment Muslims — and other religious minorities, most definitely including Christians — will receive under his administration.

He faces pressure from hardliners in his party such as the Hindu Sena to deal with Muslims and Christians harshly and constrain the constitutional space they have to practice their religion. Among the things that prevent him from obliging is that he has worked very hard to rehabilitate himself on the world stage after becoming an international pariah post-Gujarat (America and other Western countries even denied him travel visas at the time).

But all bets will be off in Modi's India if Trump's draconian calls to ban Muslim travel and kill innocent relatives of terrorists get him elected in America. Such talk will wash away all of India's Hindu extremists past excesses and encourage their future program of chastening Muslims. Ditto for other majorities in other countries with their own beefs against their minorities.

But even that doesn't plumb the depths of the disaster that'll be the Trump presidency.

Countries don't necessarily look for moral approval from America to set their course. But America is still morally instructive not because it is an inherently noble country — how can that be when its history includes slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow? It is because it became spectacularly successful after it dealt with these sins — and in the process made material advancement synonymous with economic freedom, equality, democracy, individual rights, and humanity across the globe.

Trump's crude populism to Make America Great Again will sunder precisely this connection. It will send the message that a potentate who can force companies to make things in America, crack down on dissenters, and keep troublesome minorities in line will usher prosperity and stability — to hell with principles such as voluntary cooperation, trade, tolerance, and inclusiveness.

This will be a tragedy of epic proportions because it'll convey to these countries America's loss of confidence in its own model of success, suggesting that in the Hobbesian universe we live in, we are better off relying on a Leviathan to extract wealth from neighbors and maintain order at home. This is the opposite of what a world already reeling from the forces of cruelty and darkness needs right now.

American democracy is resilient and mature enough that Trump will likely lose his allure before he does too much damage. But India and other countries that are still in the process of fully institutionalizing liberal norms — and have lingering authoritarian longings — may pay a more profound and lasting price.

So if they want to pray and light candles for anything, it should be to never find out what demons a Trump presidency would unleash in them.

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