One newspaper called him a “most unlikely pretender to high office”, a “dunderhead” with a “big mouth”, known for his “scattershot, impulsive style”.
He had a penchant for long, rambling speeches, projecting himself in messianic terms, promising to lead the country to a new era of greatness.
He emerged amid a “constellation of crises” – economic hardship and unemployment, an “erosion of the political centre” and a “growing resentment against the elites”. This fed a hunger for a strongman touting radical solutions.
Donald Trump? Boris Johnson? Rodrigo Duterte?
No, actually, the lines above are from a recent New York Times review of a new book titled Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939.
Of course, for all their faults, Messrs Trump, Johnson or even Duterte have, so far, not done anything as heinous as the notorious German chancellor did. But the parallels in their rise to prominence are uncanny, and troubling enough to warrant pondering.
This thought played on my mind as I sat through the recent bust-ups between the two candidates for the United States presidency, Trump and his Democratic counterpart Hillary Clinton. Both exchanges were long on rhetoric but short on substance. They left me feeling a little sorry for American voters. They have endured a two-year-long campaign only to be in the unenviable position of having to choose between two unpopular options.
Depressed at this prospect, I lamented to an American friend how alarming it was that someone as clearly ill-suited to the task as Trump might even be a contender for the nation’s top job, let alone harbour hopes of winning.
“Don’t worry,” he replied. “It won’t happen.”
The US presidential election, he explained, is not a direct vote. The American Founding Fathers, in their wisdom, had set up an electoral college to thwart populist candidates sweeping the field and also to ensure a geographical spread of electoral power. So winning the election would require a candidate to chalk up delegates in a long slog of state-by-state victories. Going by recent polls, Trump “has no path to the White House on these delegate counts”, he assured me. He seemed oblivious to the irony that America’s much-vaunted democracy might be saved from a political disaster only by dint of not being quite as democratic as it is often made out to be.
Now, how America picks its president is for its people to decide. But for us in Asia, the unfolding political drama holds a certain fascination, not least because of the unpredictability of the outcome and what it might mean for global politics.
Lamentably, both candidates have struck electorally expedient poses which will come back to haunt whichever of them makes it to the White House. But beyond constraining their hands politically, the bitter rhetoric in last Sunday’s debate also had a more insidious effect. The “degrading spectacle”, as Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman put it, “damaged the prestige of democracy”.
“At one stage, Mr Trump boasted that Mrs Clinton would ‘be in jail’ if he were in charge of the legal system. Political rivals to the president get imprisoned in Mr Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. America is meant to live by different standards.
“Sunday night’s spectacle is not just embarrassing for the US. America is widely regarded as the ‘leader of the free world’. So the rise of Mr Trump threatens to damage the prestige of democracy everywhere,” he wrote this week.
As I see it, the toxicity of Trump’s campaign stems from the way he has framed the debate around what might be called “trumped-up foes”. In his dystopian world, globalisation, immigration, free trade, political elites and the media are the enemies. They are to be pilloried for a litany of sins, from American jobs being “stolen” and shipped abroad, to Muslims and minorities fomenting insecurity and terrorism at home.
Trump is neither original nor alone in pushing these simplistic soundbite answers to complex challenges facing societies today, including here in Asia. Yet, his noxious, no-holds-barred rhetoric emboldens politicians elsewhere to join in the attacks on these electoral bogeymen.
Writing in the New York Times, columnist Roger Cohen summed it up this way: “Trump likes to bloviate about China and unfair trade deals, but you can take China out of the equation and the American jobs lost to cheap labour in Asia are not coming back.
Robots are doing those jobs, artificial intelligence is replacing them and technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace in ways that make human beings redundant.
“People know this. They feel the tectonic plates shifting, not only of America’s place in the world after two wars without victory, but also of production, employment, their livelihoods. Precariousness is the new normal.
Everything is visible, including the immense wealth of the rich. Tossed here and there by dimly understood global forces, people revert to nativism, nationalism and ethnocentrism – in a word, to Trumpism.”
Asian voters are not immune to Trumpism. It will take hold unless political leaders in our countries have the courage – and voters the good sense – to debunk Trumpism. They will have to assert loudly and clearly that globalisation is not the enemy; foreigners, immigrants and Muslims are not the enemy; the media and journalists are not the enemy.
Elites in society might have many foibles, but vilifying them is not the answer. Nor is attacking democracy and its institutions.
For all its failings, representative government underpinned by the rule of law – which enshrines checks and balances, so that politicians don’t get to decide who is sent to jail, or enjoy unfettered powers to run the country as they fancy – is not the cause of the present economic malaise our societies face.
The causes lie deeper, in the failure of societies to tackle squarely the challenges arising from rapid, sweeping and inescapable economic and technological change. Grappling with these will not be easy, nor without pain.
So, voters would be wise to be wary of those peddling “beautiful”, quick-fix and cost-free solutions that will make the country great again, if only everyone would just do as they command.
Warren Fernandez is editor-in-chief of The Straits Times, Singapore.