The Korean Trump

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The Korean Trump

Lee Ha-kyung
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.


Donald Trump, who has rocked the world with his endless lies, was defeated by Joe Biden in the U.S. presidential election. Many people are relieved that they will no longer suffer from the egomaniac’s Twitter messages and fake news. It is, however, too soon for relief.

“Hillbilly Elegy,” a best-selling American novel, is like a sociology textbook revealing the origin of the Trump phenomenon. Hillbilly refers to a poor, white laborer who dwells in rural areas in southern Appalachia. The author, J. D. Vance, is a man in his 30s who graduated from Yale Law School. He, however, spent a cruel childhood in Middletown, Ohio.

His ancestors were day laborers and tenant farmers. They later became mechanics. He said his mother was kicked out of her home by her fifth husband after trying to take money from his inherited wealth to buy drugs. He recalled that his hometown was the center of all kinds of misfortunes. “Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks and white trash. I call them neighbors, friends and family,” he wrote.

The novel explores a nation of the wounded and insulted that exists inside the United States of America. Trump, a businessman, was smart. In the early stage of his 2016 presidential campaign, he started lumping himself with such stragglers in the plural pronoun of “we.” When he campaigned, he said, “our farmers,” “our soldiers,” “our miners” and “our workers,” according to Victor Davis Hanson, an American conservative pundit. Trump managed to show empathy with the woe-begotten group whom Vance calls “neighbors, friends and family.”

Hillary Clinton made her biggest mistake in the 2016 presidential campaign in West Virginia. “I’m the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into a coal country,” she said during a rally. “Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” That was a threat to the residents.

Trump tried to win the area by mentioning, “clean, beautiful coal.” The 2016 race was determined by the different attitudes of the two candidates.

In this year’s election, over 72 million American voters enthusiastically supported Trump. They still believed in the “we.” That loyalty allows Trump to reject the election outcome and to try to run again in the next presidential election.

Biden, who has endured many personal ordeals, vowed to unite the country. Can he resolve the sufferings of such long-neglected people? Janan Ganesh, a political columnist for the Financial Times, said Biden won’t be able to do so because “partisanship is in the structure and culture of Washington.”

The United States has led the global order and exported democracy. And yet, the country is split in two because it failed to resolve the domestic challenges of the wealth and opportunity gap among its people.

What about the situation in Korea, which imported democracy from America? The livelihoods of the self-employed and contract workers have been destroyed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Moon Jae-in government is continuing its expansionary fiscal policy, but spending is not enough.

Five decades ago, Jeon Tae-il, a sweatshop worker in Seoul, committed suicide by burning himself to promote workers’ rights. And yet, an average of 2,000 workers die every year due to industrial accidents. It is a record-high number for the OECD member countries.

The politicians only care about winning power. The shallow liberals, selfish unionists and regressive rightists are actually on the same side. We’ve seen no leadership that wants to unite the country to protect the people. As if the division between North and South is not tragic enough, the politicians are creating another division in the South.

Trump won power through a legitimate election, in a respected democratic apparatus, by taking advantage of public rage. Adolf Hitler may be his political mentor. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, professors of government at Harvard University, warn that democracy has always been a precarious system.

Korea is a much less mature country than the United States in terms of democratic systems. May 68 — which started in France a half-century ago and swept Europe, United States and Japan to promote equality, human rights and community and environmental values — failed to land in Korea. Professor Kim Nuri of Chung-Ang University said Korea’s exception from the revolutionary movement made the country lag a half-century behind the global current of affairs.

Korea is currently having a civil war in the political arena. Conservative and liberal politicians are calling each other evil and each insist they are absolutely right. We don’t see a leadership of grand unity and cooperative politics to safeguard the people’s livelihoods and strengthen foreign affairs and national security. Who can possibly guarantee that Korea will not see a Hitler or a Trump in the future?

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