What’s with the Trump fetish

October 01, 2020 06:00
US President Donald Trump’s propagandistic presence looms over some of Hong Kong’s most infamous online platforms. Photo: Reuters

Allegations of collusion with foreign powers, active suppression of civil rights, a heavily botched response to the COVID-19 crisis, alienation of half of the country’s allies… We’re in the dying days of Trump’s first (and hopefully the last) term, and it’d be unduly litotic to say that his presidency has been, for the lack of a better word, an epic failure.

Epic in its marvelously cataclysmic nature, failure in its ability to bring about better conditions for the vast majority of Americans, albeit it may well be the case that he has delivered the promises that he’d made during his campaign. Over his four years of reign, Trump has managed to convert America into a desolate, hollowed-out, decrepit country – filled to the brim with disillusioned, disenfranchised masses, and with intra-national rifts that haven’t been so pronounced and despair-inducing for a very long time. Unironically, Trump has transformed America in the footsteps of regimes who have long prized themselves for their autocratic, authoritarian tendencies – he has molded the 50 states in the image of the personality cults that one would only expect to see across the Pacific, in countries that ostensibly supported Trump’s ascent to power.

Yet, for all his flaws and failures, there remains a loyal fan base that ardently supports Trump – a smorgasbord collective of ultra-right-wing conservatives, anti-China activists, pro-business tycoons, and Republican expats, co-inhabiting this city of 7.4 million: Hong Kong. I wouldn’t be surprised, if the net support for Trump in Hong Kong were higher and stauncher than the support for him in even some of the Red States (now oscillating between Red and Purple, thanks to Trump’s brilliantly divisive tenure).

What’s with the Trump fetish?

The standard pro-Establishment account would attribute the mass sentiments to “foreign interference”: the tampering with local politics by foreign envoys and diplomats, eager to pounce at every opening. It’s to do with the “Black Hand”, the “paid insurgents”, the sycophants and lackeys to American rule. Perhaps – but this only goes so far and does so much in explaining the domestic popularity of Trump. It doesn’t account for why, even in spite of the National Security Law’s passage, Trump’s propagandistic presence still looms over some of Hong Kong’s most infamous (or renowned) online platforms, including LIHKG and Golden (the former is often termed as Hong Kong’s 4chan). Pepe the Frog memes, Facebook posts valourising Trump’s speech, and tweets that associate Hong Kong’s ostensible liberation with Trump’s anti-Chinese rhetoric have only increased in both vociferousness and frequency over recent months.

Is it to do with education? Hong Kong’s population ranks amongst some of the most highly educated populations around the world – it prides itself for its internationalism (though the city has certainly slipped in recent years across the board), the highly mobile and dynamic access to free information in the city, and the largely unfettered freedoms of speech and press that its media outlets have traditionally enjoyed. Hong Kong doesn’t have a civic education – that’s correct; yet this shouldn’t independently lead to a significant portion within the population celebrating Mr. 45 – a de facto tyrant who has wreaked havoc to his own country.

So we must dig deeper, into the delicate entanglements of politics and psychology, as well as the vastly balkanised landscape of activists who thrive in Hong Kong.

The Trump fetish in Hong Kong is propelled by a deeply rooted mistrust of and antagonism towards China. Some view China as an authoritarian state; others deem it an invasive entity that is trampling on Hong Kong’s sovereignty. These individuals also find themselves shut out by the political establishment, as institutions and values to which they are devoted are seemingly eroded by the accelerating integration of Hong Kong into China. Beijing and the Hong Kong Establishment may disagree – but it behooves them to acknowledge that such antagonistic skepticism is certainly prevalent in Hong Kong; indeed, it’s so deeply entrenched that individuals turn to Donald Trump – an authoritarian, cantankerous megalomaniac – for solace. For these individuals, Trump stands for everything that China isn’t… With his bellicose speech, dog-whistling words, and blatantly anti-Chinese gestures (though certainly not his policies), Trump projects an unmissably anti-Chinese public image – which is far more likely to catch the eyes of the average netizen in Hong Kong, than a detailed breakdown of his actual foreign policy. Hence Trump worship isn’t, in part, so much a celebration of his policies and rule in the US (or whatever’s left of it), but a championing of his ardent anti-CCP rhetoric. These days, words speak louder than actions.

There’s obviously more to it, though. Save from the rare, standalone left-leaning activist networks and platforms (e.g. Lausan or Night Owl, who have certainly produced some rather incisive and illuminating commentary over the past year, yet have struggled to “make it big” internationally), a predominant majority of Hong Kong’s anti-CCP movement “champions” ideals and values that are deeply rooted in social conservatism. From the open xenophobia towards mainland Chinese migrants (couched in thinly disguised ethnocentric terms that desperately seek to pry apart the “Hong Kongese” and the “Mainland Chinese” identities), to the dismissal of progressive values as emblematic of “PC Culture”, to the framing of any and all anti-capitalist narrative as “pro-CCP” and “anti-Hong Kong”, there’s something unmissably conservative about the core of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. Many outspoken intellectuals and leaders associated with the movement openly romanticize the British colonial era (where there was no democracy), dismiss allegations against Trump as elaborate CCP smears, and accuse the politically correct “Liberal Establishment” in the West of abetting the rise of the Chinese Communist Party.

Most fundamentally, the blind zealotry is an indictment of the paucity of knowledge concerning international affairs amongst the Hong Kong public. Joshua Wong and Jeffrey Ngo have come under heavy fire from radical netizens for criticising Trump for his racist and oppressive response to the Black Lives Matter protests. Some have even leapt on the bandwagon of branding any and all anti-Trump protests as “funded by the CCP”. Isn’t it obvious? The most strategic way for Beijing to sow chaos in the United States in 2020, is clearly via funding a progressive, civil rights movement that abhors white supremacism and authoritarian encroachments upon democracy. That’ll teach them something, surely?

At the end of the day, though, the zealous worshipping of Trump is unlikely to go away with the waving of a magical wand. Should the political divisions and mistrust in Hong Kong be continually entrenched, it should come of no surprise to anyone, that the city would eventually slip into a vicious cycle, an embittered battle between radical, pro-Beijing hawks, and radical, far-right anti-Chinese activists. The Establishment may not like the Trump fetish, but unless they do something about it, it looks like ‘tis here to stay.

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HKEJ contributor