Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Trump, Rajapaksa, and the Many Faces of Madness

At times it feels the world is goes mad around me. In this calm and beautiful place I barely believe the headlines streaming in from the US, and sometimes I can barely believe what happens here before my eyes. I see the spiraling vestiges of madness whenever I walk down the street. It creeps in at the edges in posters and stickers, and back in the US the insanity has reached a roar which can be heard across oceans. Strange, when on facebook I see as many posts about American politics from my foreign friends as my American ones. When America begins to go mad the world trembles – from my students in Cambodia to my teachers in Egypt to my coworkers in Sri Lanka. We watch the thrashings of a behemoth with baited breath.

Here too, the air is laced with madness. The other night while walking with my friend Taryn to dinner I was shocked to see the ex-president Rajapaksa's face leering at me from the back of a bus. Rajapaksa was a 12 year dictator of a 'president', who ended Sri Lanka's civil war by obliterating the Tamil people in the North, and maintained his popularity by leveraging his people's lingering resentment and mistrust of the 'other'. He stole millions of dollars in state money, and guaranteed Billions to Chinese cronies in useless development projects which now litter the country: a half finished 'lotus flower tower' currently looms over the city like a giant penis. Rajapaksa's ousting was met with visible relief by the intellectual class I have mostly associated with – the kind of people who threatened Rajapaksa with their ability to think critically about his ludicrous statements and policies. But the spectere of his popularity has not faded. The bus, bedecked in Rajapaksa posters, was full of shouting men. The night was full of yelling, streets even more packed than usual. It was an opposition rally where the old president called for power to be handed back to him. As we ate, a stream of middle aged men filtered into the restaurant, wearing baseball caps with Rajapaksa's face that reminded me eerily of 'Make America Great Again' hats.

It is hard not to think of Trump when I see this. We in America are used to watching the antics of dictators and demagogs around the world and wondering 'how?'. Well, now we know. Money and fear. Rajapaksa and Trump gain their popularity from the same thing: telling the privileged majority that equality for minorities means oppression for the majority. It is an appeal to instinct, to 'us versus them', to our basest and most violent natures. It isn't inhuman. It is how humans are when they are afraid.

And now I, too, am afraid. Not for my own safety in either context, but of the madness, and who it will consume. Rajapaksa and Trump are the same kind of leader – men who have made their fortunes off the backs of the unfortunate, but still speak the language of the working class well enough to convince people they are populist. Leaders who create a strong loyalty by defining themselves in opposition to an 'other'. Leaders who grow with bloodshed. Rajapaksa ended a war by exterminating the opposition. And Trump, I fear, won't end violence, but start it. We see the stirrings of it, as he promises to subsidize violence at his rallies. As a student of mass violence, I can tell you confidently that his is the kind of rhetoric which starts it. Tells people they need to strike first. Creates a climate where they are lauded if they do. I am not predicting genocide if Trump is elected. But I urge you not to fall into the trap of believing that violence is something that happens to 'them', somewhere far away. Never say “he couldn't do that, he's such a nice person”. I have met murderers and rapists. They have offered me tea. They love their families. They are nice. Just like me. Just like your neighbor. Just like you. Violence is what happens not when you put bad people together, but when you create the expectation that good people will act terribly. And this is what Trump is slowly doing.

So no, I will not 'move to Canada' if Trump wins. I will not leave my Muslims friends and my trans friends and my friends of color to danger that is unlikely to touch me. How could I live with myself if I ran when so many don't have the resources to escape? I see my role in this world as a peacebuilder, a preventer of conflict where I can, and healer post-conflict where I cannot. When that conflict comes to my doorstep, who am I to disown it?  


  1. Good point! If the unthinkable were to happen, we would all be called upon to do our best to be voices for, and actors for, sanity.

    However, based here in the U.S., Trump continues to be more a frightening blip than a serious threat. He is deeply deeply unpopular with the broader electorate. I believe even a "kinder gentler" Trump (and who would believe that?) will be trounced in the general election. Republican objections to Trump point to the Republican party sharing my analysis!

    Not that we should take the victory of rationality for granted!

  2. I am currently immersed in reading some of the biographies of the founding fathers of America. When I read about politics in the late 1700s and early 1800s it makes me realize that what we are seeing in the early 21st-century is not as mindless and crazy or unusual as you might think. There have been some pretty outrageous people in the history of US politics.