Trump is much more than an American problem. The populist soon-to-be-ex-president, still enthusiastically supported by more than 73 million eligible voters, is the manifestation of an American disease which has been festering for decades. To various degrees, it has infected the whole world. If unchecked, it may undermine the foundation of the human race.
An existential threat to the entire human race? That sounds like a Trumpian hyperbole doesn’t it? But it’s not.
we’ve forgotten that without collective competence, humans as ‘wise individuals’ can hardly compete with dogs
The human race, aka Homo sapiens — self-declared wise monkeys — are a social animal species on planet Earth, nothing more. The keyword is social, a word which many now disregard, even view with contempt. After wallowing in romanticised individualism for a few short decades, we’ve forgotten that without collective competence, humans as ‘wise individuals’ can hardly compete with dogs, our best friends with sharper teeth and claws, not to say eating excessively at the top of the food chain, treating wastefulness and obesity as natural human rights.
Social animals are characterised by community instincts which give them collective strengths. Ants, bees, humans, are all similar in this regard. But humans have additional social binders such as beliefs and values. Though resistant to change, these bonds are more flexible and adaptive than biological instincts, giving us unmatched evolutionary latitude in the wild Animal Kingdom.
In the past, beliefs and values — be them religion, feudal loyalty, family values — were overwhelmingly unifying, albeit annoyingly restrictive, at least within a community. The American century has done much to systematically weaken, even subvert, some of these essential human characters, replacing them with poisonous but gratifying delusions about our personal selves.
This unintentional devolution is understandable, however.
Historically, the overarching belief in the West was a monotheistic religion. Then came science, which elevated Western prowess dramatically, but is incompatible with God. This ‘incompatibility’ eventually led to the Western civilisation’s unwitting ‘cultural revolution’. God gets dethroned, but science is not a binding agent; the social fabric starts to unravel. Some hang on to God anyways, ignoring gravity and evolution. Some discover personal space from within, and detach from the community spiritually. Some turn to Freedom and Democracy as a substitute, hence the familiarly irrational missionary zeal in spreading the ‘Good News’. Unfortunately, while Freedom and Democracy provides a replacement beacon for God’s orphans, it promotes excessive individualism at the same time, and a populist political culture incapable of governing modern complexities with consistency and foresight. This is an observable consequence for all to see, not mere conjecture.
Leadership is a critical feature of the human race. Good leaders help us think and plan well above group average, labour and fight with strategic coordination, and survive unpredictable challenges from the environment. That’s why leaders are traditionally respected and entrusted with power and discretion. But demagogues these days are loathed and distrusted instead, often for valid reasons, resulting in a breakdown of collective competence and coherence. In populist democracies, the best minds with vision and integrity have backed away from politics. The rare ones who haven’t won’t get past municipal elections. Simple as that. You call that a good system?
A simple-minded argument is that without Democracy, there’ll be ‘Dictatorship’. This primitive God-or-Satan misapprehension is blind to the infinite possibilities between black and white
A simple-minded argument (if it can be called an argument at all) is that without Democracy, there’ll be ‘Dictatorship’, a children-eating one — boo! This primitive God-or-Satan misapprehension is blind to the infinite possibilities between black and white, the wonderful shades of grey in which the human imagination and ingenuity thrive. Being wise monkeys, we really shouldn’t be that deliberately stupid.
History is of course tainted with despots — some really awful, some fabricated by demonising adversaries, some repackaged as heroes by supporters who control the narratives. That will always be the case for as long as there are people, regardless of political system. Clever sociopaths had manipulated God, betrayed trust, put grotesque ego and greed above the community, just like the current state of affairs in some vibrant Democracies. Fortunately, history also shows that abuses could be fixed, albeit painfully, even bloodily at times. However, based on performance to date, the ballot-box is evidently not a solution for these recurrent problems. A populist Democracy in fact tends to legitimise abuse and corruption, undermining an accomplished society with unprecedented guile.
The ‘success’ of Homo sapiens should not be taken for granted. Our seemingly indisputable dominance on Earth could well be ephemeral. If the entire history of this planet is divided into 24 hours, we have been here for only a minute or two. Dinosaurs had been planetary masters for about forty minutes on this time scale.
Our viability is yet to be proven, and we are facing daunting challenges, many of which require a united humanity to resolve. The human world has irreversibly become a community of common destiny. That’s the plain reality — one which won’t compromise with political ideology, self-centred delusion, or primeval prejudice.
James Tam 2020.11