[Column] The global significance of the US presidential election

Posted on : 2020-10-26 16:43 KST Modified on : 2020-10-26 16:43 KST
Trumps’ reelection would continue an international wave of right-wing populism

Donald Trump has a 9% chance of being elected president — that’s what leading American news outlets, including the New York Times and CNN, reported in October 2016, shortly before the election. The media said that Hillary Clinton already had the election in the bag, with a 91% chance of winning. But such predictions were upended by the actual results of the election, on the first Tuesday that November.

The election of Trump, a political outsider, kindled the fires of populism that had been smoldering in countries around the world at the time. In 2018, parties carrying the banner of populism made big gains or won outright victories in 22 of 28 countries in the European Union. Populist parties gained power in Italy, Greece, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland and entered ruling coalitions in 16 countries.

In South America, Jair Bolsonaro, seen as Brazil’s version of Trump, was elected president, pushing out a left-wing government. This momentum reached its peak in February 2020, when the UK completed Brexit, officially leaving the EU, under the leadership of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

What exactly is meant by populism? The basic claim made by populist parties is that a minority of elites have stolen the power of ordinary people; their basic pledge is to give that power back to the people.

That’s the operating principle behind left-wing populism in the current era. Anyone who’s excluded from power is a candidate for joining the movement.

But right-wing populism sets up a third group standing between the elite minority and the ordinary masses. That group could include immigrants, foreign workers, refugees, or women.

Right-wing populists claim that the elite minority pays more attention to this other group than to the ordinary people who form the majority of the population. Such populists stir up anger among their supporters and resentment that immigrants or refugees (for example) enjoy more privileges than ordinary people.

Simply put, this is the technique of mobilizing the less marginalized at the expense of the more marginalized. Trump and Brexit are some of the prime examples of this sort of right-wing populism in action.

The era of deglobalization ushered in by Trump and Brexit was baffling for many intellectuals who had supported populism while criticizing the failure of the elite minority to respond to the demands of ordinary people in democratic systems.

In retrospect, two of the vanguard figures of contemporary leftist populism were Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US. Both of these figures attracted global attention and mass support by calling for quantitative easing to benefit ordinary people, rather than corporations, amid growing inequality around the world. But in the end, both Corbyn and Sanders failed to gain power.

Ironically, the vacuum left by the left-wing populism proposed by Corbyn and Sanders was filled by right-wing populists such as Trump, Johnson, and Bolsonaro, people who stoke hatred and discrimination.

Inability of populist governments to contain COVID-19

Just as baffling is the institutional incompetence of populist governments during the COVID-19 pandemic. While people such as Trump, Bolsonaro, and Johnson achieved power by promising to protect ordinary people, they’ve failed to demonstrate any ability to actually protect people from the pandemic.

As of October 2020, COVID-19 fatalities exceeded 220,000 in the US, 44,000 in the UK, and 150,000 in Brazil. Not only have Trump, Johnson, and Bolsonaro all been infected with COVID-19, but these national leaders have sent a misleading message to the populace by openly flouting public health rules and refusing to wear masks.

In November 2020, Trump seeks reelection. Over the past four years, Trump has disrupted the global trade order, torpedoed climate change agreements, dropped out of various international organizations for not being in the national interest, demanded his allies to bear a bigger share of defense costs, cracked down on immigrants and foreigners, ignored various forms of racial and gender discrimination, and even defended the use of violence against some Americans.

Since Trump’s true nature and incompetence have been brought fully to light, common sense would suggest that he won’t win reelection. Some opinion poll analysts give Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate, an 88% chance of winning the election.

That’s a dramatic lead — just as dramatic, in fact, as Hillary Clinton’s was during the last election. Can we really be sure that Trump will lose? Our experience last time around fuels our continuing anxiety.

Seeing right-wing populists like Trump coming to power around the world brings to mind the old question that democracy poses to populism. In short, can norms be imposed on the behavior of large self-organized groups? If so, democracy can be preserved; if not, we’re on the road to populism. That’s why the decision that American voters make on Nov. 3 is so important.’

Kim Man-kwon
Kim Man-kwon

By Kim Man-kwon, research professor at Kyung Hee University and political philosopher

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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