Thanks to Donald Trump and company, US democracy won't be winning over its critics any time soon

Mike Rowse says the circus that was the televised debate between the Republican contenders for the US presidential race gave a poor account of America's democratic ideals

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 September, 2015, 9:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 November, 2016, 10:31am

Those who claim that democracy is not suitable for Hong Kong, or at least not yet, will have been heartened by the antics in recent weeks of contenders for the US Republican Party presidential nomination. If even the standard bearer for democracy produces such shenanigans, what could such a system possibly have to offer a sophisticated city like ours? Meanwhile, American friends of all political persuasions have been cringing with embarrassment.

Let's start with the number of candidates: no fewer than 17 people put their names forward at the beginning of the process. In an attempt to avoid chaos at the first live televised debate, on August 6, the debate was split in two. The 10 candidates polling best up to that point would take part in a debate during prime time, while the seven polling less well would have a separate session earlier in the evening.

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The most striking aspect of the polling at this stage was that Donald Trump was leading the field. He had achieved that status by insulting people, mainly the Hispanic community. He categorised immigrants from Mexico as rapists and murderers, promised to build a wall along the entire length of the border to keep them out and make Mexico pay for it, and, to cap things off, would deport the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the 50 states.

The most striking aspect of the polling at this stage was that Donald Trump was leading the field. He had achieved that status by insulting people

Bearing in mind that America cannot even maintain its existing infrastructure, and that it would take many years and the army to deport such a large number of people, that was certainly a bold electoral platform. Moreover, a major reason Mitt Romney failed to unseat President Barack Obama in 2012 had been because he captured a relatively low share of the Hispanic vote. Such remarks seemed unlikely to reverse the situation.

But the moral depths were really plumbed when Trump was asked a question based on the "fact" that Obama is a Muslim who was not born in America. Instead of correcting the man first before going on to criticise the president's performance in office, Trump slid past these points and addressed the main question.

When challenged by the media, our Donald compounded the problem by saying that he was not obliged to defend Obama when anyone attacked him. This response was totally dishonest, because it ignored the fact that the premises of the question were not a criticism of the president - they were falsehoods. By failing to correct them, Trump by implication endorsed them. Bear in mind also that Trump had been one of the original and most vociferous "birthers" until Obama was driven to publish a copy of his Hawaiian birth certificate to put an end to what he called "this silliness".

Trump and another leading candidate, Ben Carson, have since gone on to be strongly critical of followers of the Islamic faith. Carson, incidentally, is a creationist (people who believe the world is only a few thousand years old and the Bible is literally true) in defiance of all scientific evidence. One might have hoped a brain surgeon would be cleverer than this.

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Trump meanwhile allowed his mouth to run even further out of control when he criticised the appearance of the only female candidate, Carly Fiorina, and implied she was ugly. Trump at first tried to deny he had done any such thing but Fiorina scored big by saying in a dignified way that "women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr Trump said". This faux pas plus a more subdued performance in the second debate finally pricked Trump's bubble and he slid in the recent polls from an astonishing 32 per cent to a still leading 24 per cent. Fiorina is second with 15 per cent, science denier Carson next with 14 per cent. Remarkably, none of the top three have any experience whatsoever in public office. What a circus.

Now, if you were sitting in Beijing, having just seen the Singapore version of democracy in smooth action, and watching the American version with increasing incredulity, which version would you be leaning towards?

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. mike@rowse.com.hk