Americans, It’s Not Always about America

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“Jeremy Corbyn is Britain’s Bernie Sanders.” “President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines is just another Donald Trump.”

You’ve done it, I’ve done it. When it comes to the United States and the rest of the world, we’re quick to compare our political systems, our political leaders and even our political climates. It’s not solely an American habit, but rather one of those accustomed to their nation’s “dominating” the international sphere, who have unconsciously come to see what’s happening in the world as ultimately a causal effect of their country’s actions.

Our impulse to make political comparisons is wholly understandable — it gives us a way to understand other countries’ political scenes and, in many ways, it makes us feel closer. As we compare Corbyn to Senator Sanders, maybe for a minute the world feels a little bit smaller. Perhaps there’s a sense of relief that somewhere, in some other part of the world, a country and its citizens are also seeing their political core on the verge of fracturing.

Comparing global trends allows us to see that populist movements worldwide are often spurred by similar problems, leading people to question the policies and governments that no longer seem to work in their favor. Economic growth has mostly rewarded a small minority, increased automation has mobilized labor and capital in a way that has changed job availability and real incomes have remained stagnant or declined worldwide.

Simultaneously, populist leaders with anti-immigration and more insular trade policies have risen in popularity, much to the alarm of the political establishment. Populist parties have gained legislative seats across the world — from the Swiss People’s Party and the Swedish Democrats, to Marine Le Pen’s Front National and Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam Party for Freedom. The neo-fascist Jobbik party in Hungary has even pushed the current ruling party to carry out Donald Trump’s dream and build a wall to keep out immigrants. These trends are largely supported by an older generation of often less educated, sometimes religious men, who have felt like they’ve become strangers in their own country, left behind as cultural change erodes what was once familiar and “great.”

However, the problem in seeing these movements solely as global trends and through an American lens is that such comparisons oversimplify the political climate of these countries and the localized issues that should be understood and analyzed on their own merit.

The populism that has cropped up in parts of Southeast Asia has much more to do with anger at corruption and public disenchantment with the very firmly established political elite. Duterte won the presidential election earlier this year in the Philippines because of his stern stance on law and order. His promise to begin a “war on crime” resonated with a Philippine populace sick of drug-related crime, political corruption and high murder rates. And the United Kingdom’s surprising vote for Brexit, which many Americans have compared to a potential Trump win, is just as much the result of then-Prime Minister David Cameron’s ill-advised gamble on the outcome of the referendum, a weak campaign from the remain camp and low voter turnout.

Donald Trump shares little in common with other anti-establishment leaders around the world. Although legitimate parallels can be drawn between Trump and historic American populists like Andrew Jackson, who ushered in “Jacksonian democracy” and vowed to defend the common man, people have used foreign examples ranging from Mussolini to Hitler and from Duterte to the U.K.’s current Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson. Trump has significantly less political experience than any of the aforementioned men; his entire campaign has been one long display of amped-up machismo.

In sharp contrast to Trump, Duterte, a lawyer and a mayor of the city of Davao for more than two decades, isn’t truly a political outsider. His political goals of converting the Philippines’ government to federalism and correcting injustices against minority groups within the Philippines are, at least on a superficial level, a far cry from Trump’s platform of exclusion based on race and religion. The comparison between Hitler and Trump is convenient due to the obvious fear-mongering both men used in their campaigns, but America is not Weimar Germany and Trump has no clear-cut political ideologies to which he can bind a nation.

More useful parallels to Trump and the current wave of populism can be found within the United States’ own colorful history. The U.S., after all, is particular in its religiosity. The country also has long-standing socioeconomic inequality rooted in slavery, leading some American political commentators to venture that Trump’s popularity is in part a result of people repulsed or outraged by the idea of a black man in the Oval Office.

Trump has hijacked the Tea Party’s clown car of bigotry and stomped on the gas pedal, but he’s not unique; Trump-like figures have risen to power many times throughout American history. There’s President Jackson, who rode on a wave of popularity brought about by war heroism and backlash against aristocracy, and Millard Fillmore who waged a third-party campaign against Catholics. There’s the criminality of German and Irish Catholic immigrants when they first entered the country during the nineteenth century and Franklin Roosevelt’s internment camps for Japanese-Americans.

Donald Trump and the rise in prominence of anti-establishment politicians worldwide should not be talked about together in one broad stroke of a brush. If we want to talk about Trump, the more useful comparisons are to be found right at home, where the particulars of the American experience can show us how we got here. If it’s not about Trump, then leave him out of it.

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