Not up for debate: Donald Trump drives another nail into democracy’s coffin

Alice Wu says in the wake of his excruciating performance in the US presidential debate, we should beware the dangers of fearmongering populism in our own pursuit of a democratic Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 October, 2016, 11:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 November, 2016, 10:29am

From what we have seen of the US presidential campaigns and last week’s debate, we have every reason to believe democracy is in serious trouble. Veteran journalist Dan Rather wrote that the debate “would seem to be the latest chapter in our quadrennial dance with democracy. But ... it was of course anything but”.

The emergence of Donald Trump, possibly the biggest bully in history to have been alloted this much airtime, is worrying. Rather sees Trump’s “wilful ignorance of important issues” as an affront to the nation’s founders’ belief “in reason and the power of intellect”.

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Democracy is indeed in trouble when facts are not important and emotions trump all. It is in trouble when scaremongers who speak freely of their hate come to the fore. And it is in trouble when, as the world saw last week, a debate is made a mockery by a candidate who views himself above all rules and therefore treats logical consistency, factual accuracy and understanding of issues – all essential qualities in a debate – as unimportant.

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Trump is asking the people of his nation to vote for him based on his self-proclaimed superior judgment and temperament, never mind his zero regard, let alone respect, for the truth and other people he deems less deserving. When such a man is this close to being elected to arguably the most powerful seat in the world, the world has got a crisis on its hands.

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Democracy has seen better days, and Trump isn’t the first sign of its degeneration

Whether or not there is some hypothetical 400lb hacker threatening our cybersecurity, we should be concerned that Trump took it as an opportunity for fat-shaming. Unsurprising for someone who lives in his own universe, Trump’s moral compass bears no resemblance to universal standards.

According to the world of Trump, Rosie O’Donnell deserves to be bullied by him, hardworking people deserve to be stiffed by him, and – surprise, surprise – he himself does not deserve to be questioned on anything. The man’s supposedly superior temperament means questioning him is deemed “not nice” and people he name-calls deserve them.

It is no longer self-evident that all people are created equal. Someone like Trump can apparently decide who is deserving of what. And close to half of the citizens of the land of the free and home of the brave are OK with that. (Take a moment and let that thought take hold.)

America’s founders believed that they created a system that would protect people from demagogues and irrational mobs. This presidential election is going to be that system’s greatest test.

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Democracy has seen better days, and Trump isn’t the first sign of its degeneration. Western democracies have been struggling for years, fighting the crises of efficiency and legitimacy. Many people today are frustrated with the political process and the lack of results. The likes of Trump capitalise on this public discontent for their own gain. There are serious underlining issues that democratic governments have to resolve.

We in Hong Kong should tread carefully. We cannot directly elect our chief executive yet, but we already have a serious build-up of political distrust and angst. It would be wise for us to acknowledge that democracy will not solve all our problems, and we must remain wary of those who insist it is a cure-all, a fool-proof system. We must not abandon basic reason, respect and decency in our pursuit of democracy. Hong Kong cannot be the breeding ground for fearmongering populists.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA