Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A cautionary tale of governance and Trump

Benjamin Goh and Saifudin Hamjuri Samsuri

July 27, 2016


It can be puzzling how someone as controversial as Mr Donald Trump could rise to political power in the United States. His antics are unbecoming of a world leader: From his call for a ban on Muslims entering the US, to his comparison of Mexican immigrants to “rapists”, to his sexist attitude towards women.

It is easier to dismiss this reality-star mogul as just an outlier in the often unpredictable drama in American politics, until one realises that he actually has a better-than-average chance of becoming the next American president.

How did he become so popular?

Some in Singapore point to Mr Trump as an example of democracy’s failure to prevent the rise of demagogues, or that his divisive ideology creates new tensions in American society. Perhaps the most troubling idea of all is people blaming the “stupid” American public for voting for Mr Trump.

All three statements above are the wrong lessons to draw from his nomination as the Republican presidential candidate.

First, Mr Trump’s rise is not a failure of democracy; in fact, it is very much the exercise of democracy in the grand tradition of the US political system. Democracy is not just about the process of voting; it is a system that believes in the “demos” — the people — to make the best decision through public debate.

[I agree that it is not a "failure" of democracy as framed in the above paragraph, but I think the point of the critics of democracy is that democracy and the democratic process inherently contributes to the emergence of populist or nationalist characters. Democracy is incompatible with Meritocracy. Within Democracy lies the seed of populism. ]

A friend recently commented that Singapore should be grateful that our laws (such as the Sedition Act and Internal Security Act) would prevent the rise of someone like Mr Trump here. That is missing the point. While he might have won over the majority of Republican voters in the primaries, his political campaign has also motivated like-minded people who care about social justice to step up efforts to spread awareness about the dangers of his ideology and how it hurts America.

It is a long process, but opinion polls suggest that the American public appears to be slowly retracting their support for Mr Trump. A bad idea is eliminated when people see a better alternative; it does not die just by silencing it.

[Ah! So Americans are not "stupid". Just slow. I think the point again is that for a country like the US and even the UK, poor (or stupid) decisions are not fatal. They have deep stock, and can survive one or two, or even a whole series of bad decisions (the US has survived democracy for some time now). But can a small country with shallow stock (like SG) afford long processes where we flirt with bad decisions, and then slowly come around to the realisation that an idea or decision is bad, and embrace a better solution?]

Second, the rot in American political culture began long before Mr Trump’s candidacy. In many ways, Mr Trump is a symptom of the decay in American politics, rather than the problem itself.

[And the decay, or the root of the decay, or the process that allowed the decay is... Democracy. Or the seed of populism that emerged from the soil of Democracy.]

The Republican Party has, over the past decade, embraced xenophobia and racial supremacy as its party platform — the rise of the Tea Party in hijacking the Republican Party from within to promote the former’s evangelical and conservative ideology only further deteriorated the quality of political discourse in the US.

[Evidence of the seeds of populism within Democracy, sprouting.]

Note the lack of bipartisan politics in the US over the past eight years of President Barack Obama’s two terms in office, which have been marred by a strong misinformation campaign orchestrated by the Republican Party about the US President’s personal allegiances as a black man, coupled with Islamophobia that appears to take issue with Obama’s middle name, Hussein.

Having sown the wind, the Republican Party now reaps the whirlwind. Mr Trump is the latest incarnation of simmering racial tensions between a certain segment of white American society in the US and non-white Americans, masked for many years under the euphemism of protecting “traditional values”. The problem will not go away by simply eliminating Mr Trump at the polls, but rather, requires a deeper consensus among the American public that the country is shared by many —not just a select few.

Finally, and most worrying of all, is the sentiment that Mr Trump’s rise is the result of a “stupid” populace. Admittedly, America’s education system is considered by many of its citizens as broken — teachers are not well paid, public schools are severely underfunded, the academic results of many students are underwhelming, and high-school and college dropout rates are high.

However, this does not make a population stupid. Instead, the rise of Mr Trump reflects people feeling disenfranchised and increasingly marginalised because of growing inequality in American society.

According to government figures published in Foreign Affairs, the US poverty rate in 2014 was about four percentage points higher than it was 40 years earlier. This means that if you were poor in the 1970s, it is likely that, one-and-a-half generations later, you would still be poor, and maybe even poorer than before.

Another sobering statistic to show how the average worker has been left out: In 1965, chief executives at the 250 largest US companies were paid 20 times as much as the average worker; in 1989, it was 58 times as high, and in 2012, it was 273 times more.

When “legitimate” political process does nothing to improve your standard of living, elections seem nothing more than a farce. And when people no longer believe in the political process, they often vote for chaos. As political scientist Katherine Cramer said: “... the Trump phenomenon (comes) out of rising income inequality and the leftovers of the Great Recession. They are feeling unheard and kind of disrespected by typical powers that be.”

This also explains the other outlier in the current presidential elections: Senator Bernie Sanders and how he has swum against the political currents to contest Mrs Hillary Clinton as the Democrats’ nominee. While Mr Sanders has recently endorsed Mrs Clinton’s candidacy, it remains to be seen whether his voters will now support her instead.

To call disempowered citizens stupid for their desperate desire for change would be unfair, and even elitist. The fault should be squarely placed on the bureaucrats and politicians whose careers have benefitted from years of inaction and gridlock.

Recall how Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, from the Republican Party, declared at the outset of Mr Obama’s presidency that they would block any laws or reforms proposed by the president or the Democratic Party. The Democrats, in turn, are perceived by American voters to have lost touch with the man on the street, favouring only big businesses and the rich.

[Seriously? Democrats favour big businesses? So the Koch Brothers are supporting? And Sheldon Adelson (Sands Casino) supports Democrats?  I had my doubts about the reliability of this news article, written by two post-grad students. One presumably living in the US as he completes his masters? And this is the observation he produces?

The fact is Republicans are generally seen as pro-business, and pro-wealth. Democrats are pro-welfare, pro-healthcare (see Obamacare). Yes, in this Presidential race, which is weird, you have the Koch brothers who are Republican supporters, shying away from Trump, and you have Bernie Sanders attacking Clinton for her corporate support. ]

Going forward, the battle against “Trumpism” is not to stifle hate speech or to jail people for making insensitive remarks — these are short-term control measures. The longer battle is won through responsible policymaking, and actively pursuing inclusiveness.


Benjamin Goh is currently doing his two-year Master in Public Policy at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, while Saifudin Hamjuri Samsuri has just ended his year-long Master in Public Management at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

[This article has questionable observations. So do read with caution.] 

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