American historian Eric Foner is a Pulitzer Prize winner from Columbia University. His area of specialty is , the rebuilding of the American south after the Civil War.
Sensing money-making opportunities in the Confederacy of the so-called "slave states" that lay prostrate in 1865 after the four-year Civil War, many soldiers of fortune made their way south.
They swept through the defeated states buying up assets and parlaying them into fortunes.
Named after the cheap baggage they carried, these "carpetbaggers" were reviled as vultures, come to feast off the decay of the South.
That’s what Donald Trump is: a carpetbagger come to grab at the remains of the Republican Party.
Reeling from assaults by an assortment of increasingly extreme right-wing groups that began to flourish during the administration of George "Dubya" Bush, the party fell down an ideological mineshaft.
Pulled in many directions by neocons, evangelists, white supremacists, soldiers of fortune, gun nuts, religious bigots, the party seemed to lose its bearings.
Jockeyed by loose associations like the Tea Party: a grab bag of anti-abortion, anti-immigration, anti-corporate, anti-bank, anti-welfare, anti-tax, anti-government isolationists… anyone with a pet peeve, the GOP seemed to jettison its traditional conservative agenda of lower taxes, national security and fiscal rectitude in favour of divisive social nostrums such as abortion, school prayer, gun control, immigration.
From this miasma emerged Donald Trump to claim his prize: the presidency of the United States that includes not just the most powerful financial system in the world and the world’s greatest military machine with global projection capabilities, but more important, the most destructive nuclear arsenal known to mankind.
Like India’s Narendra Modi, Trump is an unrestrained megalomaniac; he says the most egregious things but nobody knows what he stands for except showmanship.
Like Modi, Trump seems willing to embrace the most egregious forms of bigotry, something America is not used to and India is finding hard to deal with.
Modi already controls the resources of a trillion-dollar economy, the world’s largest armed forces and a nuclear weapons stockpile of which little is known whether of its size, its technological sophistication, its chain of command.
In that sense, he is way ahead of Trump.
For those of us who have been shocked and awed by the rise of Modi, it appears depressingly possible that Trump could win the election in November this year.
Modi springs from a revivalist Hindu cult and has raised bigotry to a winning election manifesto.
A narrow worldview bred by prejudice against Marx, Muslims and Macaulayites, his bigoted agenda, Hindutva, was asserted by denigrating opponents and then weaving a fantastic web of deception about El Dorado, aka achhe din.
The origins of Trump, according to recent revelations, can be traced to the wide-open frontier ways of his German-born grandfather, a saloon keeper, who celebrated guns, booze, debauchery and devil take the hindmost.
The grandson’s candidacy has been powered by his own wealth, both inherited over three generations and accumulated in his lifetime.
His financial success represents the most unsavoury strand of capitalism that combines avarice, violence and a belief that poverty is a mark of personal failure.
Modi and Trump share qualities that define the word redneck: a visceral hatred for an establishment they seek not to crash but destroy; a lack of aesthetics including clothes and churlish public behaviour; an overt appeal to violence and hate.
And yet, neither Modi, despite his chaiwalla deception, nor Trump springs from poverty; they both emerged from the margins of social class and project without much finesse that they are victims of relative deprivation.
There is one crucial difference between the two.
Trump emerged from the decline of the mainstream Republican Party that began with Richard Nixon on down through Reagan and the two Bushes. He simply seized the opportunity, carpetbagger style, to catapult himself into the reckoning.
Like it or not, he mocked the Republicans, I am your party nominee by acclamation from the white detritus, the kind of people you wouldn’t admit to your country clubs or the towers I built for you; the kind of people who thronged my grandfather’s Seattle saloons at the turn of the 19th century.
Completely unnerved, the Republican establishment finds itself without a cogent response to Trump’s extreme and ever-changing manifesto but especially to his sweeping primary wins.
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: look on my works ye Mighty and despair," Trump seems to mock them.
For his part, Modi also cocked a snook at India’s established liberal democracy. India is a Hindu nation, was his claim in the 2014 election.
He attacked and denigrated the Congress Party, the mainstay of the UPA coalition government that gave India ten years of unprecedented growth and a new spirit of inclusion.
Using innuendo and lies, Modi succeeded in his shock-and-awe campaign portraying the Congress as a corrupt, anti-Hindu force that perpetuated poverty and neglected infrastructure.
It was an amazing act of chutzpah that enabled his party to win an absolute majority in Parliament with just 31 per cent of the popular vote.
Just as Trump had a free ride in the primaries, raining curses and indignities on the journalists, Modi has enjoyed a two-year stint unquestioned by media.
Like Trump, he has kept journalists at arm’s length: no interviews, no press conferences; only one-way communications: government press releases, radio addresses, tweets and social media posts. And there was, of course, the interview with Arnab Goswami.
Now it is beginning to catch up, this brazen lack of accountability. The social media, in which he reigned unchallenged, have now become channels of opposition and ridicule.
Also, new digital alternatives have emerged to the mainstream media: influential news portals, widely circulated blogs in the digital editions of mainstream newspapers and television channels and numerous other outlets to reach audiences by the million.
Trump evaded hard questions in the primaries because his rallies frequently were overwhelmed by violence between supporters and opponents.
He nevertheless used the platform to denigrate his opponents as people who did not want to "make America great again", a dog whistle appeal to racists, misogynists, the sullen white trash in their survivalist camps and costumed meetings.
It remains to be seen if Trump can handle post-primary national scrutiny in the same scruffy way. India’s Modi will also find it difficult to repeat his sucker punch campaign in 2019.
Comeuppance looms on the horizon for both the American carpetbagger and the Hindu revivalist.
(An edited version of this post will appear in Education World, July 16, 2016.)