Fighting Populism with TV Ratings

At first it seemed like an amusing comedy; we were parents watching a child from the sidelines in wait for him to eventually realize his immaturity and correct himself. But after a while the incoherent gurgling starts to become worrisome. And when your child still refuses to be potty trained at the age of 10, the worry starts to materialize into apprehension.

By the 100 day milestone, Trump had managed quite a bit. He wants to put ‘America first’, yet withdrew from the Paris Agreement and simultaneously weakened his own negotiating power. He wants to bring jobs to the people yet is splurging on a mining industry that might soon be sputtering its dying breaths. He wants to tell the people as it is but what ‘covfefe’ is supposed to be, we’ve yet to find out. On the surface, it doesn’t seem possible that a multibillion dollar tycoon could have remained afloat with as little foresight as he seems to have at present (or so we still believe).  Yet delving deeper, I’m still left me with the confounding question of what really does go on in the mind of Donald J. Trump? And honestly, why should I care 15,000km away?

As the main proponent and ardent self-proclaimed activist against fake news, Trump has a rather ironic affinity towards the media. In fact, a majority of his moves appear to be deliberate click-bait material to keep his critics, supporters and everyone in between handing on. This almost narcissistic need to remain in the limelight can probably be traced back to his beginnings as a business tycoon who has basked in wealth since young. (To note, his very run for POTUS started off as a spiteful media stint meant to bite back at the critics. Sadly he’s still enjoying the last laugh)

Whether knowingly or unknowingly, his gamble to have his critics do his work for him has worked off. Reporters continue feeding the troll by creating the very narrative Trump has wanted to construct. By labelling him as a loose cannon, we’re legitimizing the idea that he’s unpredictable when in fact he’s done little more than follow the rather appalling ‘plan’ he sold to millions during his campaign. Our responses continue to add credence to his claims that the left has lost touch with the people, that we’re doing nothing against the terror threat and that he continues to be the saving grace of America. This is where media sensationalization has been particularly pernicious. Emphasizing Trump’s actions and his continued blundering only serves to emphasize that he’s still forwarding his agenda. It doesn’t reflect how there’s an alternative to presidential power, how the checks and balances we’ve put in place at the beginnings of our Constitution are finally kicking into action.

Rather, and more importantly, it fails to highlight how the left and right is changing albeit slowly and subtly to engage with one another.

It would do well for any society to take close note of the mistakes made in how the media has handled Trump or any other populist leader for that matter. Lamenting about how populism has threatened the liberal agenda does little to reverse the chilling effect that lead to the rise of populism in the first place. If anything it only portrays such populist leaders as the champions of the isolated and unrepresented rust belt population. Such media coverage doesn’t undercut populist support since it doesn’t tackle how populist decisions fail to progress the conservative agenda as well. Ryancare fell flat on its face because for once the media called it out as it was, a loss no matter who we were talking about.

In fact, this observation was precisely what caught my attention as a spectator from a part of world often believed to be in China.

Rewind two years to the 2015 elections in Singapore. A good part of the rhetoric being thrown around from our ruling party was their impeccable track record and clean history. Regardless of the validity of the claims, these were rather assertive carrot-and-stick incentive being thrown to the public. Not only did it fail to emphasize the tangible merits of policies, this line of campaigning appeared to reduce any form of critique thrown against it and sidestepped the need to explain policy decisions. In fact, the mode of engagement resembled very closely the same pitfalls which haunt the democratic movement in America today.

Singapore has had the advantage of a generally pragmatic population that is as much a reflection of the constitution it is built upon as it is a result of careful social engineering. That being said, amidst our gleaming skylines and well-pruned hedges, we see a similar problem with the way social activism and political engagement is carried out. Take for example the availability of social welfare and support which will always be a cause for consternation and concern amongst the public.

For the Singaporeans high on the corporate ladder, the struggles of the single mother living off a bare $1000 in a rental unit are specters spoken off in dialogue and discussion but nothing more. If we are to balance the interests of both the single mother and the corporate employer, there needs to be a certain level of acknowledgment and understanding between the two parties. The lack of the sway of populist policies thus far which aim to play up any disparities in representation is partly due to an independent legislation that acknowledges the plight of the financially unstable while providing coverage for the average Singaporean. Yet the more insulated the different strata become, the more likely is the divide between the cleaners mopping up our hawker centers and the suited gents of City Hall and Marina Bay. Should a situation arise where one sector has to be prioritized over the other, a lack of awareness would lead to divided interests and a failure to reach compromise. Such fissures in society are particularly pernicious since it impedes not only the executive capability of the government but reduces its mandate.

If we have anything to learn from Trump, it is to understand that societal problems require consensus and widespread support to be solved. The media is charged with the responsibility of granting visibility to the disadvantaged and ground up initiatives present at the moment to support them. Similarly, it would be for the better that the government contributes to these efforts as well in highlighting the impact of our social welfare programs and the need for more ground up support. Given the recent makeovers being announced for our maturing estates, it might be worth considering a redrawing of our estates to provide visibility for this sector of our society. The Ethnic Integration Quota drew its fair share of criticism since it was first implemented but it remains a vital part of the social fabric we’ve stitched together today while the lesser known Singapore Permanent Resident Quota has yet to reveal its ramifications in its entirety. Similar intrusive intervention if pursued by our policy makers would require much greater outreach to ensure public support but may well be the pill required to avoid gentrification and stigma. More specifically, it would prevent the disadvantaged being misconstrued or forgotten in society.

Trump’s first 100 days may not have realized the miracles we’ve been counting stars on but they have provided more than sufficient feedback on how the media allows a demagogue preoccupied mostly with the number of retweets he can hit to thrive. Back here at home we’d do better to open up our social bubbles and support more responsible media to avoid ever having to face such a situation in future.



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