The lowest common denominator

Stabroek News
January 21, 2016
Previous Point! We should recreate as far as possible the musical agenda for Independence in 1966

The news that Sarah Palin has endorsed Donald Trump for the Republican nomination to run for the presidency of the United States of America has been met by general derision in most quarters. Some people, however, don't know whether to laugh or cry.

As a BBC reporter puts it, Mrs Palin is a "cartoonish" personality, well known for her outlandish views, her reality TV career and her gaffes when, as governor of Alaska, she was surprisingly plucked from obscurity to be John McCain's running mate in 2008. As the vice-presidential candidate, she became famous for ‘going rogue' when she spoke her mind on campaign issues, much to the dismay of the McCain camp. Now, she has pretty much become a parody of herself with her strident rhetoric, extreme right wing ideology and general ignorance of the world at large.

In many respects, Mrs Palin and Mr Trump are two peas in a pod, well-suited and welcome to each other. Satirists and serious commentators alike are already having a field day with the announcement. But there is a worrying subtext.

It would be all too easy to dismiss Mrs Palin and Mr Trump as figures of fun except for the frightening thought that their brand of populism actually appeals to a great number of conservative, mainly working-class Americans. Mrs Palin is the darling of the far-right Tea Party movement of the Republican Party; Mr Trump's outrageous and bigoted pronouncements on the economy, jobs, immigration, terrorism and national security are finding shocking resonance amongst a significant proportion of the American population.

We, in Guyana, like to think of ourselves as reasonable people with balanced views of the world and we would therefore like to think that, in a normal society, the former gaffe-prone vice-presidential candidate's endorsement would be more like the kiss of death for Mr Trump's presidential ambitions.

Let us remember, though, that the USA, in its vast entirety, is not really a homogeneous, normal society; it is, as we have previously noted, a deeply divided, almost schizophrenic country. In the 2012 election, for instance, Barack Obama won 51.1% of the popular vote and 26 states plus the District of Columbia, compared with 47.2% and 24 states for Mitt Romney. Going into the 2016 election, the division between blue states (liberal/Democrat) and red states (conservative/Republican) is expected to continue.

Mr Trump and Ms Palin are the type of American politicians who seek to exploit these divisions and, in so doing, play fast and loose with the truth. For example, they pander to the conspiracy theorists who claim that Mr Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya but for whom Mr Obama's greatest crime - mostly unspoken - seems to be that he is a Black Man in the White House. Moreover, they clothe themselves in the garment of righteous, God-fearing patriotism.

Ironically, in ‘the land of the free', people like Mr Trump and Ms Palin are at liberty to spout their rhetoric and fixate on the lowest common denominator - fear of the other - as they take advantage of people's insecurities and ignorance in the pursuit of power. Hopefully, the majority of Americans will reject their views.

So, whilst we are tempted to laugh at the crassness of this brand of the American right, even as we should be fearful that the current political comedy does not become a tragic reality there, here in Guyana, we would do well to recognise and expose the purveyors of division in our midst. For we too have been plagued by the scourge of ethnic division and subject to the fear-mongering of politicians whose moral sightlines rise no higher than the lowest common denominator. We must be ever vigilant.