How to renew faith in democracy, amid the spectacle that is Donald Trump

Kelly Yang says the poor example set by America’s embrace of Trump in its presidential race points to the need for education that teaches respect, not hate

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 March, 2016, 1:53pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 November, 2016, 10:31am

“What’s the point of democracy if they’re just going to elect people like Donald Trump?” one of my students asked me as we watched the Republican debates.

Normally, teenagers here have no trouble listing reasons to support democracy. Hong Kong has become polarised as a society, more in need of effective, representative government than ever. Yet, lately, when I ask Hong Kong children about the merits of democracy, they have been drawing a blank, reciting instead the many outrageous things that pop out of Trump’s mouth every day – everything from erecting walls to erecting…er…body parts.

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“OMG. The front runner for the Republican Party just talked about how good he is in bed!” one student exclaimed.

“That would never happen in Singapore!” the Singaporean kid at the back shot back. With that, he stood up and launched into a five-minute speech about the merits of one-party rule.

OK, that’s it, I thought. I got up, walked over to the TV, and switched Trump off.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t refute Trump’s points. Anyone with a fifth grade education could, and probably a few precocious third graders, too. I turned it off because showing Hong Kong kids clips of the US presidential election was no longer useful in teaching them about democracy.

Showing kids clips of the US presidential election was no longer useful in teaching them about democracy

It may be useful if I were trying to prepare them for a career in reality TV. But, as for teaching kids to be respectful of others, how to engage with someone with a different opinion in a considerate way, or how to choose a leader based on the virtue of his or her ideas and not the zing of his or her insults – in other words, the virtues of democracy, the US presidential elections have fallen disappointingly short.

So short, in fact, that many in Asia are pointing to Trump’s rise in America as a cautionary tale against democracy. As fellow columnist Yonden Lhatoo recently wrote, “It doesn’t matter a damn who becomes US president ... I can’t wait for Trump in the White House. It’s going to be endless entertainment if he wins.”

Indeed, I’m beginning to think that if Trump wins, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party would be the first to rejoice, if for no other reason than so it can go to its citizens and say, “See? That’s what democracy gets you!”

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True. But democracy also helps safeguard against abuses of power and gives the marginalised a voice. Increasingly, though, it seems elections are less about that and more about who can scream the loudest and appeal to the highest number of voters using the most common denominator. And if that denominator happens to be hate, then what?

“Then we move to Singapore!” said the Singaporean kid in the back, who was only half joking.

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I refuse to give up hope on America, even as more and more Americans type “How I can move to Canada” into Google in the weeks since Trump began pocketing delegates in the Republican primary contests.

We must change the most common denominator from hate to respect

Fleeing is not the answer. Nor is changing primary rules, requiring an IQ test for voters, or (and this I found most amusing) requiring an IQ test for presidential candidates from now on, all of which were ideas presented by my students as possible ways to improve democracy.

The only way forward is education. We must change the most common denominator from hate to respect – respect for rational thought, respect for each other, and respect for freedom, equality and justice for all.

When America votes in November, the world will be watching to see if they still believe in those values. Because, if Americans don’t even believe in them any more, who will?

Kelly Yang teaches writing at the Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School.