In 1991, American singer-songwriter Marc Cohn wrote and composed an autobiographical song titled ‘Walking in Memphis’ which instantly became an anthem among college-going kids around the world. It became such a rage that Cohn won the Best New Artist Grammy at the 1992 edition held at Radio City Music Hall in New York (Cohn was already 32 at the time, but it was his first album).
The lyrics of ‘Walking in Memphis’ are a tribute to the musical culture of the great American state of Tennessee (where Memphis is located); a place where such genres as blues, country, rock and roll, rockabilly, soul, bluegrass, Contemporary Christian, and gospel were either born or developed.
In the song, Cohn mentions both Beale Street — considered the epicentre of blues music — and W C Handy, often referred to as the ‘Father of the Blues’. Tennessee is also home to Sun Records, where musicians such as Elvis Presley (hence Cohn’s lyrics about visiting Graceland and seeing Elvis’ ghost in the song), Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Charlie Rich blossomed. Sun Records, Tennessee was where rock and roll took shape in the 1950s.
Memphis, and by extension, Tennessee, were quite literally where America glowed. It was often the nation’s face to the rest of the world (apart from New York City and Hollywood), its soft power as contemporary historians and political scientists would put it.
Tennessee is exactly where something ominous happened last week, and in such a small town that no one, except a few local media outlets, took notice. In a small town called Franklin, in the midst of a tough race for mayor, the town’s alderman (a political designation akin to deputy mayor) Gabrielle Hanson joined the contest accompanied by a group of white supremacists. Hanson is a Trump-linked political operative who wants to out-Trump Trump’s ideology, but at the local level. It riled the genteel local politicians to such an extent that the city authorities released a statement: “We, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, are deeply concerned and disturbed by the events that unfolded at Monday night’s candidate forum for the upcoming city election... Individuals identifying as neo-Nazis and self-admitted supporters of Gabrielle Hanson threatened both our citizens and members of the media during and after this important civic event.”
Why is this important, and why should we in India take note?
In the run-up to the 2024 US presidential elections, the Republican Party — to which both Hanson and former President Donald Trump belong — is taking American political discourse in a direction that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. Hanson is a known far-right ideologue, a philosophy the majority of Trump’s supporters back. They also say they will support Trump for the Republican nomination next year in spite of him facing four trials in which he is accused of serious crimes, including revealing state secrets and masterminding a violent uprising on January 6, 2021 following Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 polls.
Take a look at the non-Trump Republican line-up for the party’s nomination for President — Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence and Chris Christie. Each of them, like Hanson, is trying to out-Trump Trump with statements that are so far-right of centre that they sound incredible, almost incredulous to lifelong Republicans. However, it is a reality that America — and the rest of the world, including India — will have to live with for some time to come. In the event of Joe Biden losing the 2024 polls, immigration will be top priority for the new President, and it is likely to have a profound impact on Indian talent.
Trump is no fan of immigration and consistently followed an anti-immigrant policy. Ramaswamy and DeSantis, the two leading candidates after Trump, have already made their views clear on both domestic and foreign policy. The former, an Indian-origin tech multimillionaire whose net worth is nearly a billion dollars, has announced that he will end the H1-B visa regime and replace it with something that is based “only on merit”. It is ironic, really, because his company uses H1-B to attract talent, and has done so frequently in the last five years, according to documents available with the United States Citizenship Immigration Services (USCIS). Ramaswamy also wants to end chain-based migration, thus effectively ending the Green Card system (it won’t be such a bad thing, really, because given the current backlog, if an Indian applies for a Green Card in 2023, she is likely to get approved only 134 years later).
Haley, whom Trump appointed as the US envoy to the United Nations, has fallen out with her former boss, and has consistently avowed a non-discriminatory immigration policy at the Mexican border, but has made no statement on H1-B or related visas.
On climate change, the Indian government co-signed in November 2021 an aggressive deadline of achieving Net Zero by 2070. In this regard, Ramaswamy has an extreme policy position. He wants the US to stay away from climate change mitigation. Or, as he puts it on his campaign website: “Drill, frack and burn coal: abandon the climate cult and unshackle nuclear energy.”
Trump is no different. In 2017, he exited the Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation saying it will put the American economy at a disadvantage. Almost every Republican lawmaker agreed. If Trump returns to power (with the possibility of Ramaswamy as his Vice President), India will lose an impact partner in its Net Zero ambitions.
Biden, who has worked closely with India on building a long-term strategic relationship, has lost some of his core support on account of his age, and it is likely that he will lose votes as well. Trump and the rest of the Republican aspirants know this, and will use it to their advantage in 2024. Personal attacks are the hallmark of American political campaigning. A Trump versus Biden redux won’t be any different.
For India, a Republican in the White House will have long-term implications. Therefore, regardless of whom we vote into power next year — the BJP or the I.N.D.I.A bloc — the new government will have to be ready for significant changes in American policy positions on both immigration and climate change. It is better to be ready than be taken by surprise in January 2025, when the new US President will take oath.
Sachin Kalbag, a journalist and a podcaster, is Senior Fellow at Takshashila Institution, a Bengaluru-based non-partisan think tank. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org