The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
In a leadership appraisal of former U.S. presidents, Donald Trump ranked near the bottom — 41st among 44 presidents. But his dramatic fall from grace cannot be explained only by his style, his substandard language, habitual lies and embedded reluctance to accept responsibility. Actually, Trump’s drastic descent can be attributed to a substantial threat a demagogic leader could pose to a democracy when he’s plied with fanatics who blindly follow an order from the commander in chief. Trump’s outlandish strategy to “divide the nation and rule” posed a fundamental question to American voters: Could a president really become the biggest enemy of the presidential system?
The ongoing legacy of the Trump presidency is divisive politics. The ex-president is still fanning a sense of anger and reverse discrimination among low-income white Americans. They still believe his insistence that the last U.S. presidential election was manipulated and stolen. They instead turned a blind eye to Trump’s wrongdoings, whatever they are. Thanks to their steadfast allegiance to Trump, their standing in the Republican Party was reinforced. After moderates ringing alarms about the extremist group were driven out, key posts in the party leadership were taken up by Trump’s puppets. The more the Biden administration pitches reform agendas, the higher the Trump people build their defenses on the other side.
What about Korea? Thanks to its overwhelming “competitiveness,” so-called “K-politics” could be called the “mother of divisive politics.” Even after South Gyeongsang Governor Kim Kyoung-soo went back to jail following the Supreme Court’s final guilty ruling on his involvement in an online opinion rigging scheme to back then-presidential candidate Moon Jae-in in the 2017 by-election, more than 40 percent of respondents in polls believe Moon does not have to apologize for his close aide’s off-track act. The number 40 is close to President Moon’s support rate. To make matters worse, only 10 percent of DP backers say the president needs to apologize.
The reason why the Blue House remains silent regardless of the top court’s conviction of Gov. Kim’s collusion in the online opinion manipulation can be explained by the alarming results of such polls. DP presidential candidates’ strong advocacy of Kim can be seen in a similar context. In their bisected world of friends vs. foes, they believe Kim’s innocence whatever he did.
The same loyalty applies to Moon. A multitude of Moon supporters just don’t think their boss was really aware of the opinion manipulation scheme aimed at helping him get elected president. As it turned out, all involved in the opinion rigging scam are the president’s close aides and core members of his administration. Whether he had known it or not, Moon was surely the biggest beneficiary of all. Doubt or suspicion can hardly swell with an unconditional denial or silence alone.
Moreover, the DP vehemently attacked a similar online opinion manipulation scandal involving the National Intelligence Service (NIS) under the previous Park Geun-hye administration. The DP branded it as an “unacceptable act aimed at shaking the nation’s order.” The DP is absolutely right as the act of arbitrarily affecting the results of a presidential election is the enemy of democracy — whether it was carried out by the NIS or Druking as in the case involving Gov. Kim. In terms of the scale of online manipulation, Druking’s case was actually hundreds of times larger than the NIS’ case. And yet, the ruling front is busy brushing it off, which is why its pledge to keep political neutrality in the next March 9 presidential election does not sound very convincing. All officials in charge of election management have come from the ruling camp. Even a key defendant in an election law violation case still hold a key post in the Blue House. We have never seen such cases in previous administrations, conservative or liberal.
In the United States, many Americans say they just don’t have a “best friend” after going through the Trump presidency. The 2020 U.S. election was held when Trump was the president, and yet he cannot accept his defeat in the election. It was Trump who pushed America — a great melting pot — to a cliff. If the election was really stolen, the ramifications should be wider and deeper than even now.
Last week, President Moon mentioned that quarantine and people’s livelihood are his final goals before stepping down next May. But playing the role as a “fair referee” is no less important for a head of state, particularly after the Supreme Court’s ruling on Druking. Moon must convince the people that such an opinion rigging scheme will not be repeated next year, no matter what. Luckily, he still has some time left to prepare for that role.