A few months ago I wrote an op-ed predicting Donald Trump’s defeat in the United States presidential election. It happened and Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th president of the US on Wednesday.
This would be a good time to consider what lessons Indonesia can learn from Trump’s presidency.
Trump grossly mismanaged and needlessly politicized the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in America’s death per capita rate being among the highest in the world. Trump has consistently been divisive, and failed to condemn white supremacists. On the economic front, Trump will be the first president since 1939 to leave office with negative employment growth.
Yet 74 million Americans voted for him. The election was not particularly close, but neither was it the repudiation that many were hoping for.
After the election, instead of focusing on the resurgent pandemic, Trump spent most of his time and efforts pushing unsubstantiated theories of election fraud, losing more than 60 lawsuits in the process. These claims indirectly led to his party losing two Senate runoff elections, which means that in four years the Republican Party has lost not only the presidency but both the House and Senate, their worst result in 80 years.
Yet at his incitement, an angry mob stormed and desecrated the Capitol. This is only the second time ever the Capitol has been breached since the British burned it in 1814. This resulted in widespread condemnation from figures in both parties, including his own former Cabinet members, and has also led to Trump being the only president ever to be impeached twice by the House of Representatives
Simply put, Trump was a bad president who has consistently put his own interests above the country’s.
Many books will be written to understand Trump so this is likely an oversimplification but let me offer a starting theory of three key factors.
First, Trump has been blessed by a propaganda machine of right-wing news outlets, led by Fox News and enabled by the likes of Facebook. This has allowed his supporters to live in an “echo chamber” that trumpets his accomplishments while downplaying or ignoring his many failures.
Second, the enablement by other political and influential leaders gave him added credibility. Highly respected figures such as senators or influential media personalities needed him to further their own agenda, so were quite happy to sing his praises. Would his constant lies on COVID-19 or on election fraud have gotten as much traction if they were not supported by leading Republican congressmen?
Third, and the most difficult to explain, is the almost desperate willingness of some people to believe Trump. Trump lies a lot. The Washington Post calculated that he made more than 25,000 false or misleading claims during his presidency. Yet many, including intelligent reasonable people, still believe him.
Some say this is due to political partisanship, some say this is due to racism and while this all might be true let me also offer a different angle: Trump is a celebrity billionaire in a nation that worships celebrities and billionaires. In the land where Kardashians are worshiped, we maybe should not be too surprised at the willingness to believe Trump.
Can we see these things happening in Indonesia? Absolutely yes. Social media here is already rife with misleading info, although thankfully the mainstream news seems to be quite balanced for the most part.
Can our leaders enable a radical or extreme personality? I would argue that our history has shown that they can. Personally I find the last point most worrisome – I can easily imagine a similar desperation to believe here in Indonesia. Maybe not toward a celebrity billionaire, but how about someone with the right religious credentials or the right name, perhaps someone with the right bloodline?
Unfortunately there is no magic wand. Preventing this requires vigilance and proactiveness. We need to hold our leaders accountable, to ensure they do not enable a future Trump.
We need to help keep our mainstream media honest and balanced. We need to always fight for the truth – how often have we forwarded unverified info from our WhatsApp? We need to enforce, while being careful not to abuse, laws against intentional misinformation and hate spreading.
In the end the biggest lesson is how fragile democracy truly is. The US has a well-deserved reputation as a shining beacon of democracy, yet it had an armed mob storm the seat of its legislative branch of government, with the stated intent of overturning the results of a fair election. A stark reminder that democracy is frail, and that we should never take it for granted.
Let us all work together to safeguard this most precious of gift.
The writer is deputy CEO of an energy company who served in the transition team for then president-elect Joko “Jokowi” Widodo as deputy COO for the people’s welfare department.