“On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
— H. L. Mencken, The Baltimore Evening Sun, July 26, 1920
Panic now engulfs the world over the rise of Donald Trump and the realization he’s ever closer to becoming the U.S. presidential candidate for the Republican Party. With the likely coronation of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic Party candidate, it’s “The Donald,” the 24-hour TV reality show, that is shocking political establishments and status quo thinking from Albania to Zambia.
In Japan, guardians of the “bilateral relationship” in the Foreign and Defense ministries, the Liberal Democratic Party, and among shinbei (American-friendly) Japanese academics, media types and courtiers (retired bureaucrats acting as back-door channels on behalf of the prime minister to retired bureaucrats in the U.S. who are acting as back-door channels to Congress and the White House) tend to prefer Republican presidents (seen as more business-friendly, more socially conservative). But now they don’t know what to do. Trump or Clinton? Ugh.
A year ago, they seemed certain Jeb Bush would be the Republican nominee, but Trump dispatched him with a sneer. Then Marco Rubio, who said all of the things Japan’s leaders wanted to hear about the Japan-U.S. relationship, was their hope. Now, with Rubio’s exit, Japan’s political establishment is waking up to the fact it may well have to deal with President Trump after November, even as it wonders how on earth he ever became a serious candidate.
To answer that question, it might be useful to look at someone closer to home, someone who has long been accused of being a bully and a loudmouth, a political outsider with strong populist appeal who never met a television camera he didn’t love and who is a natural-born performer. I am talking, of course, about former Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto.
Like Trump, Hashimoto was a highly popular (at least in Osaka) TV star long before he went into politics. Like Trump, Hashimoto shoots from the hip (or appears to) and winds up saying things that are shocking, offensive and in bad taste. Like Trump, Hashimoto is despised by “the establishment” and appeals to disenchanted people who believe a political system concentrated in the capital city (Washington and Tokyo) is rigged against them, and that only a shock from the outside will ever change things.
Yet there are important differences between the two men. First, and foremost, is trade. Fear of what the Trans -Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) might do to American blue-collar workers is an important reason why so many are turning out for Trump. Some in Tokyo and Washington hope he’ll drop his opposition if he wins the presidency. While anything is possible, strong criticism of the TPP is one of Trump’s most consistent talking points.
Hashimoto and his party, by contrast, support the TPP, as they see it as offering more opportunities to make money, not a threat to their way of life. In addition, Hashimoto has never made the kind of racist remarks Trump has uttered, though it must be said he’s hardly an advocate of the kind of increased immigration many Japanese progressives desire.
The most visible difference between Trump and Hashimoto is one of scale. The Ishin movement Hashimoto inspired has found it hard (so far) to gain much traction outside Osaka. Trump, once seen in other parts of the U.S. as a strictly “provincial New York” phenomenon, has won in all parts of a very diverse nation.
Thus, it might be tempting to point to such differences, and Hashimoto’s lack of national popularity, to dismiss Trump as a uniquely American moronic aberration and to say “it can’t happen here.” But it’s also foolish.
View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.