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Who still loves Trump?

Dec 09,2020 - Last updated at Dec 09,2020

NEW YORK — Apart from 74 million voters in the United States, who still approves of President Donald Trump? Most Europeans are overjoyed to see the back of him. But he has been popular with a number of right-wing strongmen and demagogues, and many of their followers. His admiration for autocrats, his disdain for immigrants, racial minorities and Muslims, and his contempt for liberal democratic norms boosted authoritarian governments in Hungary, Poland, Brazil, India and the Philippines. His esteem for Russian President Vladimir Putin was never in doubt.

Trump’s election defeat is a setback for the global populist right. While many of its leaders will survive him, an already-rampant anti-liberal movement probably would have grown even stronger with a triumphant champion of its cause in the White House.

Trump also found support among a majority of the population in two democratic countries, Israel and Taiwan, where he was seen as the most powerful enemy of their enemies, Iran and the People’s Republic of China, respectively.

Israel’s right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, got everything he wanted from the Trump administration. The Palestinians got nothing. Israel’s most fanatical supporters in the US are also, by and large, Trump’s supporters; not American Jews, who mostly voted for Joe Biden, but evangelical Christians, who believe that God gave the Holy Land to the Chosen People, at least until the second coming of Christ, after which Jews will have to become Christians.

But it is in East Asia where Trump’s popularity is most interesting, especially because many of his supporters are neither right-wing nor anti-liberal, often quite the opposite. True, some people in China share Trump’s fear of Muslims, but that is not the main reason for pro-Trump sentiment.

Earlier this year, I spoke to pro-democracy activists and politicians in Hong Kong and Taiwan, who saw Trump as a coarse but powerful leader of the free world against communist tyranny. The US flag was rarely absent from public demonstrations in Hong Kong and election rallies for the Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan.

Here, too, the influence of Christianity plays a part. One of the bravest democracy activists in Hong Kong is the entrepreneur and newspaper tycoon Jimmy Lai. Ever since the handover of the former British colony to China in 1997, Lai has been at the forefront of the struggle for greater civic freedom. He is also a fervent Catholic convert who believes that the battle between democracy and Chinese communist dictatorship is a clash of civilisations between the Christian free world and an atavistic, despotic China.

Quite a few Christian Chinese dissidents share Lai’s view. They believe that liberal democracy is a product of Western civilisation, which is true. Their view that democracy would not have been possible without the Christian faith, ancient Greece is conveniently forgotten, is more debatable. The notion that Asians can’t be true democrats if they aren’t Christians is demonstrably false.

But there is more to the Chinese infatuation with Trump. As Ian Johnson recently wrote in The New York Times, some liberal dissidents in China are disturbed by the culture wars in the US. They view zealotry on the American left through the lens of their own far more violent history. When they see people hounded for ideological impurity, they see the ghosts of Mao’s Red Guards. To them, Trump’s boorish political incorrectness is a refreshing counterblast.

Still, the main reason why people admire Trump in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and also China, is fear of the Chinese regime. Despite his sporadic fawning over Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump is seen as the man who stood up to China. This is his most important legacy in the eyes of those who believe the world is divided between two great powers, one still democratic, and the other nominally communist.

Of course, in certain countries, China’s power has been feared for many centuries, irrespective of who happens to be in power, emperors or communists. Many Vietnamese praise Trump, but not because they are ruled by autocratic communists themselves. Although the US devastated much of Vietnam in the last century, China is the traditional enemy.

South Korean and Japanese attitudes to the US are more ambivalent. Trump has his supporters in those countries, but, unlike in Taiwan, not among the majority of people. While Chinese power is often felt as a threat in both countries, dependence on the US for security has both been a necessity and an irritant. A swaggering bully in the White House raises the level of irritation. President-elect Joe Biden will almost certainly be a more popular bearer of the American burden in East Asia.

Biden’s relations with China will also likely be less erratic and more diplomatic. But the basic tensions between a democratic superpower and an autocratic one will remain, and worsen if China sustains its economic success. In an age of rising disillusion with democratic government, China is a seductive model to many people. Just compare Chinese trains, airports, and other modern conveniences to America’s run-down infrastructure.

Whether the trains run on time is of course not the only, or perhaps even the best, yardstick for good government. Mussolini’s trains famously (if apocryphally) ran on time as well. At least the US has shown the world that the rascal in power can still be voted out. But if America is to be held up as a model to counter the Chinese system, then its last president has done everything in his power to make it look like the less attractive one.


Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.

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