Kevin W. Fogg

Islamic History in Southeast Asia


That other analogue to Trump

By Kevin W. Fogg, Nov 14 2016 11:01AM

This blog entry has the potential to confuse lots of people and alienate lots more, so I wanted to separate it from the previous one, but it’s one worth writing to spur real conversation.

There is another key characteristic of Donald Trump that sets him apart from all his predecessors in the Oval Office: he is the first president elected in the US with no previous history in elected office, appointed political office, or military command for the United States. Basically, he’s never been in government before, at all, on any level. That is a big deal, and a major departure in our political history. Even President Obama was criticized in 2008 for having “only” two years in the Senate, plus some time as a state legislator—his opponents said this was not enough preparation to lead the whole government. Of course, Trump has made the case that his years as a business executive (often working directly under his father) not only fulfill the leadership prerequisite but also are indeed better than the corrupting experience of working in government (especially in Washington, a.k.a. “the Swamp”). Coming from entirely outside the government made him the big “change” candidate this year.

There is an obvious analogy to this in Indonesian history: a president whose (indirect) election surprised everyone, who had no experience in government but did have other leadership experience (following the footsteps of his father), and who was the ultimate “change” candidate. That man was Abdurrahman Wahid, affectionately called “Gus Dur” (“gus” being the title for the son of a religious scholar, “Dur” being an abbreviation of Abdurrahman), elected in 1999.

This will be radical and probably offensive to some. I do not want to draw a moral equivalency between Gus Dur and Donald Trump. Gus Dur was a good man and a pious man (although quite quirky). he respected human rights (unlike Donald Trump), respected women, and respected democracy (again, it seems, unlike Donald Trump). Many of the great moral teachings of Gus Dur are still relevant in Indonesian society. (Remember “Tuhan tak perlu dibela”—was anyone saying that on 4 November?) I support the effort by PKB to name Gus Dur as a national hero. However, I think there are structural comparisons to be made, and they might even be informative when thinking about some of the weaknesses of a Trump presidency (or any future Trump wannabes in Indonesia).

Gus Dur had plenty of leadership experience in society, having been the chairman of the mass Islamic organization Nahdlatul Ulama for decades (like his father and grandfather before him) and a moral leader of the anti-Suharto movement. That experience, however, did not translate into a smooth or successful administration, though. I think it is fair to say that Gus Dur was great at being a moral leader, and pretty bad at being president. Of course, one could put forward other reasons for this: the bureaucracy probably opposed him, the tasks were so great as Indonesia transitioned to democracy, and Gus Dur was too reliant on a few advisors (Greg Barton’s biography links this to his diabetic blindness, which meant others had to read out documents and reports to him). Still, without a proper understanding of how the government worked, he failed to run it effectively. This is something I can easily imagine happening in a Trump administration.

Secondly, Gus Dur was pretty unpredictable. That meant even his allies never knew where they were going to be dragged next, which is a difficult position for allies to be in. This alienated quite a few of the people who had supported Gus Dur in the indirect election (in the Indonesian parliament) which made him president, and eventually led to his impeachment by that same house. (He was removed as president in 2001, and went on to a choppy term as leader of the Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa, as recently outlined by my colleague Firman Noor.) I don’t think anyone will deny that Donald Trump is also unpredictable as a political figure, and that he has a penchant for offending even leaders of his own party. (During the Vice-Presidential Debate, Trump’s own running-mate did not seem to know many of the man’s positions, and Donald Trump soon publically repudiated a statement that Mike Pence had put forward on behalf of the ticket.) This may very well have negative consequences in the US, as it did in Indonesia.

Again, I do not want to make a point of moral equivalency; I explicitly reject any moral equivalency between Abdurrahman Wahid and Donald Trump. However, structurally, there is a good argument to be made about the ways that lack of governmental experience, “change,” quixotic character, and electoral surprise make Gus Dur the closest analogue to Donald Trump in recent Southeast Asia.

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The thoughts and opinions presented on this blog do not represent any institutions or other organization with which I am affiliated.  They are mine and mine alone, and should not be copied or reprinted (beyond fair use) without my written permission.  My hope is that these entries will help to further discussion about Southeast Asia, Islamic history, academia in a time of technological change, and other subjects worthy of attention.

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The image above comes from a manuscript of Dala'il al-Khayrat, probably copied in West Sumatra in the first half of the twentieth century and now in the collection of Prof. Bruce B. Lawrence.