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‘Trump of the East’ and West: The rise of controversial political figures

Analysts attribute the rise of ‘controversial’ political figures to the decline of middle classes, growing inequality and ‘political incorrectness’

Ehtesham Shahid

Published: Updated:

As if the "Trump of the West" wasn’t enough to take care of our collective boredom, another controversial figure has arisen in the East, displaying similar histrionics, and proving to be successful at that.

Philippine president-elect Rodrigo Duterte – described by some as the Filipino Donald Trump and a looming dictator – made sound and fury in the run up to his election that resembled that of Trump campaign.

Duterte often used profanities and made radical pledges to eliminate poverty and end crime. He promised to “butcher all criminal suspects including drug lords and dump their bodies into Manila Bay to fatten the fish”. Statements such as these gave him the nickname “Duterte Harry,” a reference to the Clint Eastwood movie character Dirty Harry who had little regard for rules.

Duterte’s words have to be taken seriously as he had a track record of not denying that he ordered extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals when he was mayor of the southern city of Davao.

Moreover, it is only obvious that the 71-year-old’s rhetoric reminds us of the Mexican wall, waterboarding and Muslim ban promised by Donald Trump.

‘Middle ground’ realities

Duterte may have grabbed fewer headlines compared to Trump – for obvious reasons – but his rise to prominence and power says something about the ground realities that are becoming more and more discernible around the world.

Sociologists and political scientists attribute the rise of “controversial” figures to various factors including the decline of middle classes and rising inequality. Whichever way one looks at it, individuals such as Trump and Duterte are either products of voter fatigue or general discontent with all things establishment.

“The principal factors accounting for the emergence of “extreme” figures (and politics) on both the left and the right, has to do with the fragmentation of assumptions and conventions that are generally taken for granted to create a “middle ground” culturally as much as politically,” says Dr. Faisal Devji, who teaches at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford.

According to Devji, the phenomenon is linked in some countries to the decline of middle classes and rising inequality, and in others, to wars, violence and poverty. “It is the disappearance of such a middle ground that leads to polarization on either extreme,” says Devji.

Here is how it works, at least in theory. People become anxious when they can no longer assume some standard of behavior or predict their economic future. Devji says, in these circumstances, the general public is drawn into “a search either for some mythical utopia of the past, as manifested by right-wing fears about immigration, terrorism and the like; or to the vision of a future utopia on the left.”

Not surprisingly, in both the cases, there is a remarkable lack of political imagination, with the leaders and movements that attract people representing caricatures of the past. It may be easy to dismiss Trump and Duterte histrionics as campaign rhetoric but there is no denying the circumstances that have led to the rise of such figures.

While Trump still has a long way to go before he implements his promise of a Mexican wall and ban on Muslims, Duterte has already announced, even before taking oath of office, that it will impose a nationwide curfew on children on the streets late at night. He is also considering banning the serving of alcohol after midnight. Duterte is expected to take office on June 30.

Political incorrectness?

Gauri Khandekar, Deputy Director and Director - Europe at the Global Relations Forum, says the reasons behind these events is growing nationalism - a trend that can be sees across a number of countries.

“We’ve also entered into an era of political correctness and most people simply seem to find non political correctness or incorrectness if you may, rather refreshing,” she says. This is because mainstream political parties and leaders, which seek to be more cautious, fail to address concerns of the larger population.

According to Khandekar, the only ones who seemingly do address them are at the far end of the political ideological spectrum. “The number of conflicts has gone up statistically and threats have become more global in nature. Globally, attitudes to “the other” including immigrants, refugees, countries, groups, etc. have dramatically worsened,” she says.

This is evident in Europe with a number of far right political parties gaining momentum and even power. Even in the Philippines, where Duterte has risen to power, there is popular disgust with the ruling class over its failure to reduce poverty despite years of robust economic growth.

Unfortunately, with the rise in the number of global crises, the trend appears likely to continue, suggesting one more possible explanation. “Controversial people aiming for the highest office and winning also exposes the weaknesses of democracy as a model. Although it is a great learning curve, it comes at a cost,” says Khandekar.

It is obvious that liberal values are circumstantial and depend on the atmosphere surrounding the society. In other words, pandering to fear amid a growing number of crises and the trend of rising nationalism have led us all to this situation.