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Summer Travels and Thoughts on the Rise of the 'Trump Phenomenon'

Guest Writer

Kuek Jia Yao ‘19

· Jia Yao Kuek

In this article, I will reference my recent travels in southern Europe and the Middle East this summer in a larger discussion of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. In particular, I shall focus on his increasingly bellicose and unpredictable statements on foreign affairs and immigration issues.

Trump's rhetoric is often dismissed as superficial demagoguery. This is dangerous, and underestimates the historical underpinnings that influence many of his statements. In fact, the strength of Trump's campaign manifests itself in a strong Jacksonian tradition. In calling for a re-assessment of all of America's overseas commitments, Trump sends the message that he places America’s national interests first. Such rhetoric appeals to a large segment of the war-weary, politically-disillusioned American public.

Many of the countries I visited, including several Balkan states and Israel, are heavily reliant on American political heft and economic aid. One need only to look at tiny Kosovo, so grateful for US support in their fight to gain independence, that they named the main boulevard in their capital after former President Bill Clinton. Even if he is not elected, Trump and his supporters have already succeeded in influencing the next President's priorities: He or she can no longer ignore the majority of the electorate that wants less 'liberal adventurism' overseas, but instead, a re-emphasis on America's core national interests. This has huge repercussions for America's regional allies. For example, there is an urgent need to redraw plans for a collective response against a newly assertive Russia on the issue of European and NATO security. These external and regional issues have already been heavily dissected by others.

On the domestic front, Trump's statements promote exclusivity, discrimination, or even outright dissociation. This wave of bigotry is not insulated within the US alone. As seen in the recent Brexit vote, an elite-mass divide is starting to emerge in other countries as well, with voters feeling that their political leaders are not adequately representing their interests. Such sentiments are also manifested in the rapid rise of various far right nationalist movements in countries such as Austria, Hungary and Germany.

While the nations I visited have had a multitude of different political systems, and face a diverse range of different social factors, the possible contagion effect of such sentiments is definitely a shared risk. In fact, many of these countries are much more vulnerable than the United States. They face deep divisions within their societies along ethnic, religious and communal fault lines. In addition, recent historical events have created an atmosphere of tension and mistrust. Three case studies immediately come to mind: The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the continued division of Cyprus, and the tense relations between the two constitutional and legal entities of Bosnia (the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, and the Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina). While the three conflicts differ in the extent to which they have reached successful resolutions, inter-communal tensions and divisions still remain.

In my mind, the danger is that individuals in these three countries may take a leaf from Trump's book, and seek to further inflame inter-communal tensions at the expense of domestic stability and their states’ international standing. In Bosnia's case, this may threaten to destroy the fragile peace that has existed in the past two decades. For Israel, the rising popularity of far-right agendas may spark yet another uptick in violence (potentially even deteriorating into military conflict, as with the 2014 Israeli-Gaza conflict).

The persistence of narratives is another factor to consider. My Greek-Cypriot friend quipped the other day that he sometimes felt that it would just be better off if Cyprus simply built a wall and separated itself from the Turkish-Cypriot and Turkish community up north. He then proceeded to recount his childhood memories: His grandparents, having lived under Ottoman rule in Cyprus, shared many stories of Ottoman oppression and brutality. This inherited experience shaped his impression of Turks growing up. Fast-forward to the present-day, and he in turn also shares this dislike of his Turkish counterparts with his children and grandchildren. Notwithstanding the clear echoes of Trump's rhetoric within my friend's statements, this anecdote reflects the potentially deleterious long-term effects that Trump may have on these vulnerable, fractured societies.

Ultimately, while examining the effects of the Trump phenomenon from a wider perspective is certainly useful, I would also encourage more research on the possible spillover effect that his statements have had in these divided societies, such as Israel-Palestine, Cyprus, and Bosnia.

However, the future is by no means bleak. During my travels, I also had the pleasure of witnessing and participating in various inspiring efforts to promote understanding and dialogue within divided communities. This ranged from the multinational volunteer community in Ritsona refugee camp (with volunteers from as far away as Japan and South Africa), to the various grassroots projects (such as the Roots initiative) in Israel and the West Bank that set up common spaces for Israeli-Palestinian interaction. Ultimately, if there is one thing to be shared from all my travels this summer, it is this: We should never underestimate the power of the human spirit in endeavoring to create an atmosphere of positivity, cooperation, and eventually, reconciliation.

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