Trump 2.0

QWERTYMAN - Jose Dalisay - The Philippine Star

In my column last week, I mentioned the “Trumpian dystopia” threatening to take over the United States and many other rightward-leaning societies and governments around the world.

A “dystopia” is, of course, a place or a situation where everything has been turned on its head, where the bad has become good and the wrong has become right, and where the things we most feared or abhorred have become the norm. You find this in George Orwell’s 1984, where the government controls everything; younger readers and viewers will relate to Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, where citizens are sacrificed for the Capitol’s entertainment. In other words, it’s social and political hell for those reared in the kind of postwar liberalism that eschews racial discrimination, authoritarianism, gender inequality and religious intolerance, among other shibboleths.

It’s hard to believe that much of America seems to be marching in lockstep toward that dystopia under a revived Donald Trump, whom nearly all polls see as leading the race for the US presidency, which will be at stake in November this year. On this date three years ago, he was squarely in the doghouse in the aftermath of the shockingly violent assault on Congress on Jan. 6 by Trump partisans unwilling to accept that he had lost to Joe Biden in the election. Even his closest allies at that time distanced themselves from his apparent captaincy of that bloody caper, although many of them have returned to his kennel.

Nearly a full presidential cycle later, he’s back in the Republican saddle, way ahead of a pack of rivals who, save one, have refused to denounce Trump for what he is: the greatest single threat to American democracy because of what he represents (leaving aside foreign tyrants like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un). That, not surprisingly, is President Joe Biden’s exact description of him, so some might say it’s biased, but to remain unbiased against Donald Trump is to lie prostrate in front of a steamroller, begging to be annihilated.

It doesn’t help that the incumbent is 81 years old, palpably slow, avuncular and whispery where Trump screams into people’s ears (to the delight of many). Their age difference – just four years – isn’t actually all that much, but beyond personalities, it’s a difference in cultures, and perhaps of understanding how politics works in this post-Facebook age, where obnoxiousness has become a virtue and regularity a liability.

Trump thrives on notoriety, parlaying the four indictments involving 91 criminal charges against him – plus the two disqualifications from state ballots – into a kind of a badge of courage, flipping prosecution into persecution. Rather than fracture his base, any attack on Trump (and any attack by him) only seems to consolidate the estimated 30-40 percent of hardcore Trumpers who now effectively define the Republican party, the tail wagging the dog.

Among the most repugnant (and, by Trumpian logic, among the most attractive) of his recent statements has been his denunciation of undocumented migrants as “poisoning the blood of our country,” specifically mentioning Latin America, Africa and Asia as the sources of what in other speeches he has called rapists, terrorists and Covid carriers.

You would think that that kind of Hitlerian rhetoric would galvanize the Hispanic and Asian-American – not to mention the African-American – communities in America against Trump, but no. If anything, his support among these groups seems to be rising, driven ironically enough by his hardline position on immigration, the very same factor that made these minorities possible to begin with.

What I’m interested in is how the Filipino-American community will respond to Trump 2.0, and what that will say of us as a people, albeit as one of many minorities in America’s multiracial society.

There are now about 4 million Filipino-Americans; half of them, 2 million, are voters. (To put this in context, the US population now stands at 336 million, of whom 170 million are voters.) Historically, Filipino-American voters have leaned Democrat, with a majority of them voting for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in 2016 and 2020. But a very vocal (though perhaps somewhat less visible, as many people tend to reveal their preferences only in the voting booth) “Filipinos for Trump” movement exists, and if trends persist will likely gain more traction this time around.

In 2020, Filipino pro-Trumpers cited “family, religion and faith” as the main reasons they were backing him, like many American evangelicals, despite all the evidence to the contrary in Trump’s personal behavior and speech. For many, it all came down to one issue – abortion – the right to which has now been successfully rolled back by the Supreme Court’s conservative majority. This time around, the flashpoint will likely be immigration, a global problem abetted by collapsing economies and repressive regimes. Well-settled minorities such as Filipino-Americans derive a strong sense of entitlement from all the personal sacrifices and legal processes they went through to acquire their citizenship, and feel cheated by migrants scrambling across the border. This kind of single-issue vote – a gross simplification and reduction of values into one criterion – favors demagogues like Trump, who work through two-dimensional posterization.

A more interesting – and more sinister – reading of Trump’s popularity came up in a recent guest essay in the New York Times by Matthew Schmitz, arguing in his title that “The Secret to Trump’s Appeal Isn’t Authoritarianism,” but rather that “Mr. Trump enjoys enduring support because he is perceived by many voters – often with good reason – as a pragmatic if unpredictable kind of moderate” and “a flexible-minded businessman who favors negotiation and compromise.” That logic, while fetching, predictably drew quick rebukes. One reader said: “Thanks, Mr. Schmitz, but we’re already well aware of this. Italians liked Mussolini because he ‘made the trains run on time.’ This is exactly our point. This is how dictatorships happen.”

That brought me back to our own long and continuing affair with despotism, and how sharply simplified populist sloganeering can cut through and cut down on complex reasoning – with devastating consequences for democracy, here and across the Pacific.

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Email me at [email protected] and visit my blog at www.penmanila.ph.

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