My Take

Donald Trump’s brand of populism exists in many societies

From the Philippines to Germany and even Hong Kong, there are those who highlight glaring signs of social injustice but their solutions are unrealistic

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 May, 2016, 12:36am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 September, 2016, 3:08pm

The world’s media are over-focusing on Donald Trump. That means we are overlooking populist politicians like him in many countries. The conditions that give birth to his brand of politics exist in many societies, even in Hong Kong. It is only a matter of time before we will see someone like Trump in our city; or perhaps we already have.

In France, there is the right-wing National Front headed by Marine Le Pen and founded by her anti-Semitic father Jean-Marie Le Pen. In Austria, there is Norbert Hofer, who leads the Freedom Party and runs on an anti-immigrant platform. Finland has the right-wing True Finns, and Germany the Alternative für Deutschland. The list is long and not exclusive to the right.

But the one who is most like Trump in having a real shot at his country’s top job is Philippine presidential front runner Rodrigo Duterte, whose racist, sexist and generally offensive remarks put his American counterpart to shame. He admits he wants to be a dictator. He jokes he wanted to be the first in the gang rape and murder of an Australian nun. He promises to put an end to crime in six months if he is elected – by killing criminals. If not, you can kill him.

What do these people have in common? They tend to scapegoat foreigners or immigrants. In Hong Kong, the target is mainlanders.

Followers or party members like to play identity politics, stressing the uniqueness and superiority, usually fictitious, of their culture, history and society; all of them variants of what we here call “localism”.

They fetishise about independence and sovereignty in a globalised world of interdependence. They all rail against mainstream politics and “the establishment”, whose members are inevitably corrupt.

They are not only against their own governments, but also key institutions in their own countries. So Duterte wants to shut down Congress. Our localists burn copies of the Basic Law.

How did we get here? Contemporary societies, however affluent, are perceived, often justifiably, as social and political failures by many of their citizens. Once countries become rich, they can’t get richer for everyone. Material differences and inequalities become glaring signs of social injustice. Hong Kong, like other rich economies, is no different.

Populists point out such problems, but usually offer worse solutions.