Day 1: Chasing stereotypes
My editor has given me a very difficult but extremely important assignment: to seek out American supporters of Donald Trump wherever they may be hiding in Tokyo, leaving no stone unturned. Japan is home to 50,000 U.S. residents but seemingly very few who are willing to proclaim, loud and proud, that the Republican presidential candidate will be getting their vote on Nov. 8.
Tokyo can be a tough place to find Republicans at the best of times. Just take a look at the home pages of both main parties’ Japan expat branches: while Democrats Abroad’s looks modern, recently updated and has 207 Facebook “likes,” Republicans Abroad’s appears not to have been touched since 2004, the year George W. Bush was re-elected president after “liberating” Iraq and Mark Zuckerberg launched a social network for students at Harvard.
To kick things off, I post a message on my Facebook page requesting Trump supporters living here to contact me with the utmost haste, and wait.
Slowly responses start to trickle in. A friend messages me about a “nice, really chilled” African-American bass guitarist and Trump supporter. Not what I was expecting for my first lead. Clearly not the media stereotype: the made-for-TV white-trash, gun-mad, Confederate flag-carrying Trump nut with an “Imprison Hillary” T-shirt who gets in punch-ups at rallies. Curious, I send out a message asking for an interview.
Another lead via Facebook: “Investigate John Mancuso.” Intelligence from a friend reveals that he is actually a pretty smart guy, an associate professor at a reputable university in Tokyo.
I visit his FB page and am greeted with an “I Love Japan” heart icon against a backdrop of the Hinomaru flag — it’s the wartime one with the long red rays, too, that Japanese far-rightists love to parade around with. Bingo!
I scroll down: postings about Hillary being a crook, a link to some conspiracy site about the World Trade Center. This is Pure Trumpland with a weird Japanese twist. A reference to Queen Elizabeth as an “old bitch” who owns half of America or something. This guy is the real deal. I email him asking for an interview.
Day 4: Breaking into Trumpland
After a frustratingly quiet few days, things are starting to finally move forward, and fast. Now I’ve been in contact with a grand total of four Trumpers. I arrange an interview for Saturday with the least Trumpy of the lot, the aforementioned mellow bassist.
Paranoia sets in in Trumpland. I get an email from John, my No. 1 and most vocal Trumper, saying that he wants to pull out of that interview. The email reads:
“Please look on my FB page and you’ll see a link I posted yesterday regarding comments Michael Moore made recently. … What he said is basically what I believe: My vote for Trump is just a massive ‘f—- you’ to the U.S. political system. … The Left are not progressive but quite regressive and if you do not agree with them totally they will do everything in their power to destroy you. I do not need this in my life.”
I decide I must meet with John and get to the bottom of things. I email him back and persuade him to go ahead with the interview after all. I am going to see him tomorrow near his university in Tokyo.
Day 5: John
I jump on a train and head to the outskirts of Tokyo to meet John at a wine bar near where he works. It is a gray, rainy Tokyo day and cold for October.
I arrive at 4 p.m. and walk in just as a barman is handing him a glass of white. The young barman stares at my Lawson umbrella, which is making a puddle of rain on his nice, shiny wood floor, but he doesn’t say anything. Being an old Japan hand, I immediately interpret this complex and opaque form of Oriental communication, fold up my umbrella and put it in the rack outside.
John announces loudly that the barman is a nice young man and speaks English better than most of his students, but then conspiratorially whispers that “he can be a bit anal at times.”
I like John already. He seems friendly and animated, but not overly so — conspiratorial but in a jocular and self-aware way. Sensing he can handle a joke, I try my ice-breaker:”This is a surprise: a Trump supporter in a swanky wine bar. I thought we would be meeting in a sports bar and drinking Buds with American football games playing in the background on big screens.”
He kind of laughs and we get down to the interview. Seeing he can take a punch and feeling guilty about misjudging him, I shoot out this follow-up:
“When I first looked at your Facebook page I saw some stuff there that was leaning toward the conspiracy theory side of things, but you don’t seem like that at all to me now. But, yeah, to be honest, my first impression was: ‘Oh, no, he is one of these kind of “The World Trade Center was an inside job” kind of guys.”
“Well, it is. The World Trade Center is an inside job,” John replies.
There is a very short, slightly uncomfortable silence.
“Now, referring back to a comment you made earlier in an email, why exactly do you want to say ‘F—- you’ to the U.S. political system?” I ask.
Suddenly, John’s face lights up and I see the intensity in his eyes.
“How has the U.S. political system helped America? And how has it helped the world?” he asks. “Eight years ago, I voted for Barack Obama because I was so afraid of John McCain — because I was sure McCain would start World War III. I was sold on the concept of hope and change, and gee, eight years later, there hasn’t been any f—-ing change and I have no hope left. That is why someone like Donald Trump comes along and he’s talking about something totally different.”
I ask him how he feels about Clinton, to throw a little more fuel on the fire.
“And what does Hillary Clinton represent? Another four to eight years of Barack Obama. And Barack Obama was another eight years of George f—-ing Bush. And I am sick to death of it. America is more divided because of Barack Obama. When that son of a bitch comes out and says, ‘If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon,’ well, f—- you! Because as president you don’t say that s—-.”
John says that Obama’s personal response to the highly controversial shooting of 17-year-old African-American Trayvon Martin by a mixed-race neighborhood watch coordinator in a gated community was irresponsible and typical of numerous “stupid comments” Obama has made, which he believes have intensified rather than dampened the flames of racial tension in the country.
“So, eight years later America is more divided, is more racially divided, and that is a direct result of having Barack Obama in office,” he says. “What has he done for eight years? He has done nothing for us. But he has done a lot to support the globalists, he has done a lot to support those self-appointed elitists. And Donald Trump comes along and says, ‘I am gonna destroy the political elite, it is over. DNC, RNC, it’s over.’ That is why they are all against him and that is why the media is colluding with them. It is not a conspiracy theory, it is a true conspiracy. They are colluding in order to destroy him. And that is what is gonna make him win.”
John gets up and orders another glass of wine and some food. I breathe. The rant continues and John is on a roll now.
“If Donald Trump wins Nov. 8, it will be the start of the Second American Revolution. And I say, wonderful, wonderful. Destroy the whole f—-ing thing. Get rid of it. What did Thomas Jefferson say? ‘Every generation there must be a revolution.’ And he was not talking about blood on the streets, he was talking about wiping the slate clean and starting over. That is what we have to do, because America is f—-ed. And America is f—-ing up the world.”
The food arrives. I take advantage of the interruption and go outside for a cigarette. It is still raining gray Tokyo rain, but I stand under the patio awning and feel grateful for a moment to clear my head and take a break from Trumpland — and grateful to be here in Japan, far from the madness of America.
I hear the door open behind me and look around. It is the bartender: “I’m very sorry, there is no smoking outside.”
Yes indeed, I am in Japan, where there is no smoking outside, only indoors. And yes, John was certainly right about the bartender, on both counts.
Day 6: Demetrius
I disembark from the train at Higashi-Ginza and make my way to the venue where I will meet my second Trump supporter, Demetrius Wilder, who is playing a gig at the 360 Italian Restaurant. It is the venue’s first anniversary and the place is packed.
It comes as no surprise that my search for Trump supporters has led me to the capitalist epicenter of Japan: Ginza, a district named after a silver mint built there in the Edo Period — a place where money was made, literally. Yet while Ginza is the home of silver, Trump is much more about gold. Ginza would probably be too subtle for him, too old-money. If there was a Trump Tower in Tokyo, it wouldn’t be in Ginza, it would be in Roppongi.
I see Demetrius standing up the front with the band, fiddling around with his bass. Surrounded by upper-middle-class Japanese salarymen with faces red from fine Italian wine and a smattering of attractive European ladies, Demetrius stands out, the only black person in the room, in his electric orange baseball cap.
Although Demetrius may be a peculiar fit in a classy Italian restaurant in Ginza, he isn’t a misfit in Trumpland. And that is what I am beginning to discover: Trump’s secret genius clearly isn’t his ability to speak in coherent sentences or understand the complexities of geopolitics — that is abundantly clear — it is how to bring Ginza to the ghetto. Not in reality, but the aspiration of it. This is the dream of Trumpland and he is good at selling it, just like he was good at selling real estate.
After the show, Demetrius and I go to a nearby Lawson he knows with seating, so we can do the interview somewhere quiet. The cafe area, an outdoor patio, is closed as it is late and we can’t enter it from inside the store. We exit and sneak in by climbing over a row of ankle-high flower pots. I get straight to the point and ask Demetrius the most obvious question: Why would an African-American support Trump, someone who has the reputation of being a bigot and a racist?
“What makes me different is basically I’m black, I am from the ghetto, the hood, and that is not really expected — for me to change over. I was born in the ghetto, in a project, poor, my mother worked two jobs for 20 years — very hard for her. My father left. That means I am around poor people and everyone is Democrat. And I didn’t know anything else.”
Demetrius, who is from Columbus, Ohio, adds that he didn’t vote for Obama because he was in Japan, but that all his family did — and he probably would have if he had been in the U.S. then.
“What made me change is that all my life I have been a Democrat and nothing has changed. Blacks are still poor. Right now it is even worse, there is no jobs. People are getting killed, people are robbing, they are killing for money,” he says. “That is what is happening in black neighborhoods across the country.
“I don’t gamble, but I will gamble on something new. We need change. When Donald Trump says: ‘What do you have to lose?’ I understand what he says.”
Demetrius says that although he personally managed to avoid being trapped in a life of poverty and crime, he had childhood friends who “went down the wrong road” and were killed or locked up.
“I feel that what can change that is jobs. I think black people in the ghetto needs jobs, need the thought of ‘I can get a job’. Trump is bringing jobs, he is talking about stopping jobs going overseas,” he says.
Having lived in Japan for about 10 years and traveled the world extensively as a professional musician, Demetrius says he is better able to see America from the outside and its trade relationships with other countries, which he feels are unequal.
“I am in Japan and they have every Japanese car dealer all over America, but in Japan there are no American car dealers,” he says. “My mother drives a Japanese car, so I understand what he is saying: We are getting duked by all these countries with them exporting all their goods. There is an imbalance — a trade imbalance.”
Living away from home has also made Demetrius more aware of the role the U.S. plays in global affairs, something he believes is going quickly downhill.
In particular, he says he is unhappy with U.S. policy in Syria, and he cites the example of Obama’s “red line” for the use of chemical weapons, which when crossed was supposed to result in a robust U.S. response against the Bashar Assad regime.
“Nothing happened. America’s strong point is showing that we are there and if America can’t show that, then somebody gonna step up. Just like we see (now with) Russia.”
Demetrius says that this influenced his choice to vote for Trump.
“Trump is a little more stronger than Obama and Hillary Clinton. He is stronger and is gonna say what he is feeling and is gonna make it happen,” he says.
Still bewildered about Demetrius’ indifference as an African-American to the numerous openly racist statements Trump has publicly made and his infamous, endlessly discussed “build a wall, Mexico will pay for it” immigration policy, I raise the race issue one final time.
“So does it actually bother you whether Trump is a racist or not?” I ask.
The answer leaves me somewhat speechless and makes me realize how little I know as a white New Zealander about what an African-American really feels about racism.
“It doesn’t really,” he replies. “I have been called black, tar, everything, I have a tough skin. A long time ago blacks were discriminated against, way before Mexicans and all that … I know how to take it. I have overcome those sorts of things — so I am little bit stronger than how people are trying to portray (me). These little words or little things Donald Trump says …” He shrugs and opens his palms, as if to say, “Whatever.”
Day 7: Ms. X
When I first started interacting with Ms. X, I thought she seemed like a nice middle-aged lady, and she is. She seemed well-mannered if a little neurotic — well, paranoid actually, but then everyone in Trumpland is. It’s just like that here.
Ms. X is called Ms. X, by the way, because we agreed to hide her identity — agreed because, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find a female Trump supporter willing to go public. Ms. X was very helpful and did her best to find me one, but in the end kindly agreed to do an interview herself, but only under the cloak of anonymity. I empathized with her at the time. There are a lot of nutters out there, and I had been stuck in Trumpland for so long I was thinking of making a tin foil hat.
I start off the interview by asking Ms. X, a Christian and lifelong Republican from New York, why she wanted to be anonymous. She gives me the rundown on the political climate that led to her, and other “people on my side of the aisle,” as she likes to call them, to start hiding their political affiliations.
“From the point in time Obama came into office, the tea party came into being in response to Obamacare because they didn’t want Obamacare and suddenly that was everywhere,” she says, referring to the Affordable Care Act. “People went to big rallies in Washington, D.C., and I actually attended different tea party meetings, not here but in the U.S.
“Then that kind of disappeared as well and it came to be known that people were getting audited by the IRS (Internal Revenue Service). That happened, that actually happened. Different conservative groups came under the microscope of the IRS. I don’t know what happened, but people just didn’t want to talk about their political affiliations.”
When asked, Ms. X replies that yes, she is also concerned about a backlash against Trump supporters if Clinton wins, and that this could harm her business and volunteer work.
“I think it definitely could. If you are following anything that is going on now, it is completely corrupt,” she says.
She adds that from the mid-2000s it became increasingly common for Republicans of her ilk to conceal their political views, and believes this trend can be traced back to the failures of the last Republican president.
“George W. Bush didn’t really defend. He had what was called compassionate conservatism. He never really defended any of his actions,” she says. “(He) let the media run over him. By the time he left office, Republicanism and conservatism were in the tank. He paved the way for Obama. He didn’t stand up for the values of conservatism.”
I ask Ms. X if, as a professional woman, she is offended by the sexist comments Trump has made about women and if she thinks he is a misogynist.
“Not at all. A misogynist? I don’t buy that,” she says. Then, echoing the Donald’s words, she says, “I think that is locker room talk. I think other guys make the same comments. I would be more worried if I heard he was on a plane with Jeffrey Epstein shuffling underage girls to a private island like Bill Clinton did — I would be more worried about that than coarse language in a locker room.”
My mind goes back to my interview with Demetrius. As we wound up, he pulled a folder out of his bag and in it, underneath the band’s song list, was the sacred ballot itself. He showed it to me — just a printout from an email he got from his local board of elections.
And there are all the names listed in tiny, barely legible print: Trump, Clinton, Stein, etc. They seem very small and almost benign. So much talk, noise and constant racket on every TV channel and in every newspaper across the globe for what feels like years, and it all comes down to just this, a few names on a printed-out email.
Demetrius gets out a pen, and while I snap off a few photos, he ticks the little box next to Trump’s name and it is done. Finished, like it’s nothing at all.
So this is how things happen: Small decisions are made and small actions taken. A small check in a small box by a regular American guy sitting a table outside a small convenience store in Japan. These unseen and insignificant events happen again and again and again. In life, in politics, they add together and multiply and magnify and then suddenly something momentous occurs, something huge. Suddenly America has a brash billionaire or its first female as president.
I am feeling grateful that I am not an American today — that I don’t have to choose between two equally unlikable people, and with the flick of a pen help decide the fate not just of the world’s most powerful country, but the whole world.
Foreign Agenda is a forum for opinion on issues related to life in Japan. Photos by Simon Scott. Foreign Agenda is a forum for opinion on issues related to life in Japan. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org