Global trumpism: how India's brutal leader manufactures reality with trumped-up "polls"

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an authoritarian war criminal who is part of the worldwide surge of trumpist leaders and hopefuls, including Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte; Hungary's Viktor Orbán; Russia's Vladimir Putin; South Korea's Park Geun-hye; France's Marine Le Pen; the UK's Nigel Farage, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and others -- bound together by xenophobia, a lack of transparency, violent suppression of opposition, and savvy use of the internet.



We don't yet have a name for these powers yet, in the same way that the early 1930s didn't have a name for the "Axis powers" and even today it's hard to pin down exactly what the Axis was -- a military alliance, an ideological fraternity, a marriage of convenience -- and who was and wasn't a part of the Axis.

But they are starting to cohere into a movement whose shared characteristics are increasingly visible. One element of this is "post-truth," which has been part of the ruling class's playbook for decades (think of Iran-Contra, the complacency regarding the credit bubble, and, of course, the WMD lie that led to the Iraq invasion).

But the new world of post-truth has a different character; as Masha "Autocracy: Rules for Survival" Gessen points out in this important On the Media segment, the autocratic version of post-truth doesn't really make a pretense to being truthful: when Trump says there were millions of fraudulent votes, he is really saying two things: first, for the lowest of low-information voters, he's saying "hey, there are millions of fraudulent voters"; but for everyone else who knows, on some level, that this isn't true, he is saying, "I can say whatever the fuck I want and you egghead liberal pussies can't do shit about it," which serves the dual purpose of demoralizing his opponents and making him seem more godlike to the worshipers in his cult of personality.

When Brexiteer Michael Gove said that "people in this country have had enough of experts," he was acting out this playbook, asserting his faction's right to manufacture a new reality to counter the well-known liberal bias of reality.

The Brexit project is built around this reality-manufacture enterprise. That's why when the best-respected nonpartisan experts released a dismal economic forecast for post-Brexit Britain, right wing politicians slammed them for daring to defy their manufactured world. As Karl Rove said in the early days of this political moment, "[you are] in what we call the reality-based community, [you] believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Which brings me to Modi, who presides over "the world's largest democracy." Modi recently surprised his 1.25B citizens with an announcement that all bills worth more than about $7.50 would be taken out of circulation in 50 days, and that old notes had to be exchanged by queuing up at banks and changing no more than about $150 at a time, with a weekly per-person maximum of about $350. The rubric for this "demonetisation" is to fight corruption, money laundering and terrorism (India is consistently at the bottom of the World Corruptions Perception Index).

However, the move has been controversial (to say the least) -- so widely deplored across all ranks of Indian society that it threatens Modi's reality-manufacture enterprise.

To reassert his trumpian reality, Modi used his app to "poll" the Indian public on demonetisation (like Trump, Modi uses online tools to communicate directly with his base, bypassing the press).

The demonetisation poll is a literal national joke in India, as it is so fantastically biased in its use of leading questions ("Do you think the evil of corruption and black money needs to be fought and eliminated?" is the second question on the survey) and its obvious sampling deficits -- the Modi app can only be accessed by the minority of Hindi/English speaking Indians who also own smartphones, and is most likely to be installed by Modi supporters.


The push-poll methodology is well understood. It featured in a classic -- and now revived -- episode of the UK political sitcom Yes, Minister that is tearing up the charts among Indian internet users.

But also familiar is the use of polls that disproportionately survey a trumpist's political base as a way of proving that the trumpist leader's policies are broadly supported -- this was something Trump himself did frequently in the runup to the election, and is making even more recourse to now that he is struggling to reconcile the ego-bruising reality of having to govern for the next four years as America's worst-performing minority president of all time.

The always-outstanding More or Less podcast (MP3) features the Modi poll in this week's episode as a teaching exercise for understanding the abuse of statistics and polls as a means to political ends.

But as important as it is to understand the statistical incoherence of using your followers' answers to leading questions as a proxy for the entire country's opinion, it's even more important to put this move into its wider context as a post-truth, Rovean, trumpist tactic used to create "new reality."

Reality is real. As Peter Watts points out, there is no negotiating with the climate, despite what Trump thinks: "Okay, we’ll cut our bitumen production by 15%, but then you have to increase your joules/kelvin by at least 5" is not a scientific proposition. But reality assertion can be delayed until the people who denied it have made their exit.

The world's super-rich are engaged in what can only be described as secession. As the world's real economy has been eclipsed by the shadow economy of offshore tax-avoidance, as climate has been forced out of the Overton window and the window is slammed shut behind it, it seems like the plan for the future is to fly from mountaintop to mountaintop, high above the rising sea, interbreeding a race of weak-chinned, entitled, murderous idiots who are brought into contact via Harrier jet for scheduled mating visits.

They don't need to prevent climate change or global economic collapse, they merely need to (literally) rise above it. Just as the criminals behind the 2008 collapse cashed out and walked away free and wealthy, just as CEOs can hollow out their companies, collect bonuses, and deploy their golden parachutes before the crash, so too do the trumpists and their courtiers expect to saunter away from the wreck whistling while the rest of us dig through the rubble for canned goods and drink our own urine.


In ten or twenty years, we'll know what trumpism is really called, and who it applies to. In the meantime, there's another political movement in potentia that we have no name for, the group that Rove sneered at and called "the reality-based community." If you are as worried as I am about Trump, you are fighting the same thing that the Turks who are fighting Erdoğan, the Filippinos who are fighting Duterte, the French who are fighting Le Pen, the Russians who are fighting Putin, the Syrians who took to the streets against Assad, the Occupiers, the Idle No Mores, the Arab Springers, are fighting. We don't have a name yet, and we're not entirely sure what to call the other side, either, but these are the sides, and they are forming.