Political observers who take more than a passing interest in American politics typically do so for the purpose of knowing how US democratic institutions function to get the nation through its most difficult political crises. This is especially so for us in the Philippines, a former American colony whose institutions were consciously modeled after those of the United States.
The problem with this approach is that it idealizes the American system, and ignores the real-life stresses to which all nations are subject at certain points in their lifetime. This attitude is unfortunately reinforced by mainstream American media, which views US institutions as so inviolable that those who challenge them from within can only be seen as crazy, ignorant, or misguided.
Donald Trump may go down in history as the worst president the United States ever had. He is impulsive, narcissistic, reckless, and so consumed by the need to prove his power that he treats government as though it were his own personal tool.
But, how is it that such an odious person, who has not previously held public office and has shown no regard for the higher interests of the state, could get elected president of the world’s most powerful democracy? It is not as if he merely used his billions to get himself declared the official candidate of the Republican Party. For indeed, he went through the party’s tedious selection process, prevailing over more qualified and highly respected leaders of the party. And, most stunning of all, in the 2016 presidential election, he defeated the highly-experienced and immensely more intelligent Hillary Clinton of the Democratic Party, defying all the predictions of major polling organizations.
It could not have been his charisma, or his mesmerizing rhetoric. For Trump has never been known to possess a reassuring and inspiring presence. Nor is he half as eloquent or as stirring a speaker as, say, John F. Kennedy or Barack Obama. He rambles on, has a limited vocabulary, and is often incoherent in his public speeches. For a president of the world’s most powerful country, he has shown no meaningful grasp of global affairs, and has articulated no vision of what a future world should be like. His political slogan — “Make America Great Again” — conveys the remarkable insecurity, rather than the self-assurance, of what is supposed to be the leading nation of the democratic world.
No, Donald Trump did not create the angry constituency that has supported him. Rather, I believe, he has merely served as a vector for one that has been steadily forming in the underside of American politics. To use Voltaire’s famous formulation: If he did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent him.
What is important is to account not for Trump, but for the rise of a constituency that is deeply resentful of Washington politics, of big government, and of a social order in which ordinary people feel they no longer have a place. To this day, US mainstream media’s focus has been mainly on Trump and his enablers in the Office of the President and in the Republican Party. This makes them blind to the symptoms of the right-wing populist disease that has been sweeping across America, particularly its rural communities.
“Spin the camera toward the furious crowd — there’s the real story,” advises the author Ian Bremmer in his 2018 book, “Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism.” “It’s not the messenger that drives this movement. It’s the fears… of ordinary people — fears of lost jobs, surging waves of strangers, vanishing national identities, and the incomprehensible public violence associated with terrorism. It’s the growing doubt among citizens that government can protect them, provide them with opportunities for a better life, and help them remain masters of their fate.” Bremmer traces this phenomenon to globalism, the “ideology of the elite.”
As I watched the Jan. 6 rampage on the US Congress play out on CNN, listening to its reporters and commentators denounce the rioters’ “desecration” of the “nation’s temple of democracy,” my thoughts brought me back to the events of Edsa 1 in February 1986 and Edsa 2 in January 2001. I still recall how some sectors of Western media initially portrayed those events as signs of mob rule, until the transfer of power legitimized them as righteous acts of “people power.”
In contrast, Edsa 3, which exploded following the arrest of ousted President Joseph “Erap” Estrada, neither stopped the jailing of Estrada nor did it restore him to the presidency. As a result, in the annals of people power, the so-called “Edsa masa” is largely dismissed as nothing more than the inconsequential rioting of an ugly mob — the dark twin of heroic people power.
In retrospect, Edsa 3 was anything but insignificant. For, as it turned out, the same populist impulse that had fueled it resurfaced in 2016 and catapulted the cult figure Mayor Rodrigo Duterte of Davao to the presidency.
Could it be so different in America? The quick reconvening of the US Congress to certify the election of Joseph R. Biden as the next president of the United States has been hailed as proof of the strength of its democratic institutions. But, I doubt it will end the populist reactionary upsurge in US politics. Already, Trump, who garnered 11 million more votes in the November 2020 election than in 2016 when he won the presidency, has intimated he may run again in 2024. He may not succeed in getting the Republican Party nomination the next time around. But somebody else, riding on the same populist resentment, might just do a Trump redux.