Wednesday 18 September 2019

Anne Applebaum: 'Trump and other demagogues stifle debate through art of distraction'

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, walk along the highway to Matias Romero from Juchitan, Mexico. Photo: Reuters
Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, walk along the highway to Matias Romero from Juchitan, Mexico. Photo: Reuters

Anne Applebaum

In Manila, the traffic is so bad that it isn't worth driving anywhere during the day, because a couple of kilometres will take a couple of hours. In other parts of the Philippines, only a third of children ever finish primary school. Nevertheless, the loudest political debate in the Philippines, over the past two years, was not about public transport or public education.

Ever since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016, the loudest, and angriest, debates are about drugs and drug users. "I would kill all of you who make the lives of Filipinos miserable," he declared during his election campaign. Since winning, he has indeed presided over the murder of up to 12,000 men, women and children, according to some rights groups; these are, by his own admission, extrajudicial killings, carried out with no evidence and no trial.

This policy has polarised the Philippines. Duterte has successfully divided the country into supporters ("people who want us to be safe") and opponents ("people who want us to be unsafe"). In time that could have been spent on a discussion about fixing roads and schools, Filipinos had emotional arguments about violence, safety - and the president.

More recently, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League party, and now the Italian interior minister, has pulled this same trick in Italy. Even as the numbers of foreigners coming to Italy slowed to a trickle, he has used stunts and insults to shift the focus away from economics and unemployment, and towards debates about violence, safety - and Salvini. Now Donald Trump, with the aid of Fox News and Twitter, is creating the same sense of anger and emergency around the Central American refugees who are marching towards the US border in hope of asylum.

The caravan numbers less than 4,000, which is a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of people who enter the United States legally and overstay their visas every year. But I don't want to argue any further about the caravan, because that's the point: like drugs in the Philippines or refugees in Italy, this is an event being used to create fear, anger, division - a distraction. If you are talking about the caravan, you aren't talking about US companies suffering from the president's trade war, or the US government deficit, which is up 17pc from last year, or the president's utter failure to provide the "health insurance for everybody" he promised during the campaign.

The challenge, for ordinary citizens as well as news organisations, is how to discuss this story without adding to the polarising emotions that surround it. Some have tried fact-checking, demanding proof, for example, of the president's unfounded claim that there are "unknown Middle Easterners" - implied terrorists - in the caravan. None was forthcoming. Others have tried empathy, conducting sympathetic interviews with the people suffering terrible hardships on this biblical pilgrimage north, to a place that doesn't want them. As the examples of Italy and the Philippines have shown, these responses may not be effective.

The caravan story fits neatly into Trump's larger narrative. Criminals/MS-13/terrorists are pouring into the country; Republicans want to protect it, Democrats want violence and chaos. People who already believe that line of argument will see the caravan story as confirmation, and many will simply reject any information that contradicts that view. That means any discussion can increase polarisation.

Talk about children suffering from thirst, and many will loudly blame the parents. Condemn the president, and his supporters will blame you for undermining national safety. (© The Washington Post)

Irish Independent

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