There’s more to it than just Trump
This winter, as I have traveled around Southeast Asia and Korea, people have often politely confronted me by questioning if America is going a bit crazy, given Donald Trump’s continued success with his presidential campaign.
As an American, hearing such remarks can be somewhat disconcerting. I try to explain away in a few words and change the subject. In most cases, people don’t have the time just then to hear me out. The real explanation is too complicated.
It is not enough to explain the Trump phenomenon in terms of “frustrated and angry Americans.” It is totally unfair to mock his “Make America Great Again” slogan to be code for “Make America White Again.” To better understand the greater situation, not even a view from the proverbial 30,000-foot level is adequate. We need to step further away and look at what is happening globally.
As Trump dominates the international media, we can be forgiven to almost forget about the “Brexit” movement in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. In fact, there are similar movements, such as “Frexit” in France and “Grexit” in Greece.
While all EU exit supporters are not members of European right-wing populist parties and movements, those political forces are the driving engines - many of which seem to have much in common with America’s Tea Party movement.
To understand why, I recall in 1986 an American professor forecasting that as much as we were reeling from change back then, we had not seen anything yet. In fact, he warned, the rapidity of change would continue to grow exponentially. And that was before the Internet had become part of most people’s lives and the word “globalization” had joined the common vocabulary!
The professor warned that we should anticipate major political and social upheavals. This unwanted change would be foisted on many people who would naturally push back, often in destructive ways. Many people would learn how to swim in these new currents of change; and some people would even surf. But many, many other people would struggle to survive, while some would likely drown.
To illustrate how global all of this may be, consider Ian Bremmer’s survey of Europe’s far-right politics in Time magazine’s Oct. 15, 2015, issue. He noted that the European movements have five common traits. We can easily match these characteristics with like elements found in America. They are as follows:
1. Wide-ranging spread of the far right: Virtually every European nation now has a far-right party with often remarkably deep roots. The same can be said with the Tea Party, found in every American state and with solid community support.
2. Migration crisis: Many Europeans are greatly troubled by political and economic refugees pouring seemingly unchecked across their national boundaries. Trump is popular in his call to build a wall along the Mexican border.
3. Russian sanctions: Economic sanctions against Russia have hurt the European economies more than the United States. As a result, many Europeans are increasingly leery of international treaty obligations and agreements. We can see similar negative attitudes growing within America against UN and other international obligations, such as restrictions from the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) treaty.
4. Brexit: To stave off the rise of the right-wing Independence Party and ensure a Tory victory in last May’s elections, David Cameron ran to the right and promised a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain within the European Union. Hillary Clinton has reversed her support for the TPP and is now arguing against it. One can draw one’s own conclusions about her change of heart.
5. Grexit: Many Europeans view Greeks as taking advantage of the better economic management by other European nations. Many Americans view there are too many other American freeloaders who do not pull their weight and live off of welfare.
Now, one can argue how accurate these perspectives may be, but perceptions often make up harsh realities. The world is changing faster and becoming smaller than most people would like. Given the reactions by so many people, I often recall the old Broadway play “Stop the World ? I Want to Get Off.”
We cannot stop global change at the ballot box any better than the mythical king who tried to command the tide from coming in. Unfortunately, we find politicians appealing to people’s fears, and too often their ignorance, by making simple proclamations of what they will do without explaining how their promises may be fulfilled.
During confusing times, it is natural for people to look for charismatic leaders who ask the masses to just believe in them to deliver better times - often like those of past years. One of the frequent declarations of the once highly popular Mussolini was a call to “make Italy great again” as he called for the restoration of the greatness of Rome in the 20th century.
But now it’s the 21st century. In some ways, the world seems to be in as much disarray as in the 1930s. On both sides of the Atlantic and in some parts of Asia, politicians are calling for a return to better times. In many ways, Trump’s “Make America Great Again!” seems to resonate as “Make America 20th Century Again!”
All I may ask, to quote the final song from the above-noted musical, is “What Kind of Fool Am I?”
*The author is a long-term resident of Korea and author of two books on doing business, including “Doing Business in Korea: An Expanded Guide.”
by Tom Coyner