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Siling Labuyo: Nationalism and Democracy

Two supervening events that occurred last week brought to fore ideas about nationalism and democracy with the American president in the midst of it. President Donald Trump was the recipient of France President Emmanuel Macron’s diatribe about nationalism. The other event involved the midterm elections in the United States where we witnessed a shift of power in Congress with the Democrats riding a blue wave to recapture the House.

Both events contextually put a spotlight on the current state of democracy around the world and makes one wonder if democracy is dying. Consider the current situation in the United States, a country emulated by many as a shining example of democracy. Democracy in America today seemed to be turned on its head with power centralized in Trump’s executive branch. Republican legislators have lost their balls, for lack of a better term, and has been kowtowing to Trump. Consequently, Congress has abdicated on their responsibility to check the excesses of the executive.

Trump’s politicization of the judiciary with a pliant senate willing to do his bidding, was too obvious during the fight for Judge Matt Cavanaugh’s confirmation hearing to fill the seat vacated by the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Former president Barack Obama’s appointee to fill that seat in 2016 was not even given a hearing by a Republican controlled Senate. Cavanaugh’s hearing was rushed, documents suppressed, all in the altar of political expediency.

The fourth estate has been under constant attack by the president, unless the network’s name is Fox News – the president’s favorite propaganda network. Everybody else is deemed purveyor of fake news and labeled as the “enemy of the people.” To wit, a CNN reporter had his press pass revoked because of his questioning of the president during a press conference at the White House. CNN sued for infringement of the reporter’s First Amendment right and violation of due process.

Political corruption was in big display before the elections with politicians indicted for using their office for public gain – and still won their seats! Thanks to gerrymandered district, partisan districts ensures their political survival during elections.

Trump and company has constantly demonized immigrants whether already in or trying to get in the country, for political purposes. The attacks subsided after the election as the much feared caravan-carrying “terrorists and violent criminals” from Central America reached Tijuana, Mexico – not far from where a 5,000 deployed US military contingent stands watch.

These democratic regressions are expected in so-called Banana Republics but not in America. Turns out, America’s exceptionalism is less exceptional than many thought. This current aberration in American democracy is perhaps one of the products of populism that has hit many countries throughout the world – including America with Trump as exhibit A.

In that Paris event honoring the alliance’ military sacrifices in World War I, Macron’s public rebuke of nationalism riled Trump who felt personally alluded to. Trump felt the double whammy with Macron’s call for a truly European army to protect from Russian, Chinese, and American aggression. Macron’s lecture on nationalism makes him the second NATO leader to publicly stand up to President Trump. Months ago, Canada’s Justin Trudeau paved the way by defending Canada’s sovereignty over trade issues.

So the Europeans are not giving up on democracy but they are hedging their bets while Trump is in office. Europeans are convinced their welfare is not Trump’s concern. The transactional nature of the American president involving trade and the NATO alliance is giving European leaders a pause given Trump’s testiness towards them while chummy with Putin. But unlike in the last two years of the Trump administration, Europeans are now showing their disdain towards the isolationist president.

The American voters conveyed a similar message during the midterm elections by restoring faith in democracy. Women in particular from urban and suburban areas have equally shown their disdain through the ballot by electing more women and Democratic candidates to office not only at the federal level but in many statehouses as well. Trump will now be checked for his excesses by politicians who have been in the sidelines for too long while watching Trump debased the office of the presidency. With the new role, Democrats are poised to get to the bottom of the Russian interference during the 2016 presidential elections, Trump’s campaign violations, immigration policies and conflict of interests involving his family businesses who are perceived to be profiting from Trump’s presidency.

Despite the heated recount rhetoric of the ongoing brouhaha in Florida and Georgia, American elections are still the envy of the world with the peaceful transfer of power being the hallmark of democracy. But, notwithstanding the global turmoil that nationalism has brought to democratic doorsteps, comes real challenges from America’s retreat in the global scene. Trump’s infatuation of Russia’s Vladimir Putin has jeopardized military gains made in the Middle East and East Asia. Syria in particular, has virtually retaken territories lost during the Syrian conflict with the United States now helpless in preventing President Bashar al-Assad hegemony courtesy of Russia.

America is reengaging in the South China Sea but such effort is too late to reverse the military advances that China has put in place on the contested islands. China is fighting a frontal trade war with the United States and the escalating tit-for-tat will most likely create another round of global financial pain for everyone. The havoc that Trump has created with his unilateral abrogation of treaties and trade agreements will eventually catch up and create problems for him at home and most likely jeopardize his chances for reelection in 2020.

His counterpart, on the other hand, has consolidated power at home by firing or eliminating his opposition through anti-corruption campaigns and successfully amended China’s constitution ensuring his lifetime rule. China under President Xi Jinping has embarked on the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative that brings infrastructure projects to Asia, Africa and the Middle East as a way of establishing economic and military clout. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) currently led by the Philippines is clearly beholden to Xi and the association is not about to confront the Asian military power. China is basically dictating the terms of use of the contested islands in South China Seas despite a United Nations ruling repudiating its claims in some of these islands.

Knowing the situation in the United States, President Xi is playing the long game. Yes, China may suffer economically during this trade war with the United States, but in the long run, Xi believes China will prevail. As long as President Rodrigo Duterte is in power, Xi’s bidding in the South China Sea will be carried out by loaning money to Duterte’s “Build, Build, Build” infra project. Despite Trumps’ trade rhetoric against China, reality is that China has awarded Trump and his daughter Ivanka with their desired patents in real estate, cosmetics, and clothing. So, while American farmers loyal to Trump are now feeling the pain of the tariff war with China, China is actually increasing – yes, increasing its export to the United States.

“Making America Great Again (MAGA)” is a nice acronym on a baseball hat but keeping America great requires that Trump start reversing course and assert forcefully its standing in that part of the world by maintaining a strong military presence while also demonstrating a strong commitment to free trade and democracy. Sadly, Trump’s unilateral abrogation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Paris Climate Agreement and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPOA) with Iran, America has opened the door for China’s global ambitions.

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