In his recent Rolling Stone essay, Matt Taibbi immortalizes the race for the Republican Party presidential nomination, as a freaky spectacle that is “like watching 17 platypuses try to mount the queen of England. You can’t tear your eyes away from it.”
Currently, the alpha platypus is Donald Trump. He is taking advantage of a reality show, barroom brawl format in which serious debate over policy proposals can’t compete with bombastic broadsides. He blames China and Japan for lost jobs, slams Beijing’s currency manipulation while overlooking Tokyo’s, and complains that the Japan-U.S. alliance is a bad deal.
Trump also pilloried Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, complaining she is a lousy trade negotiator — even though that’s not her job — and snidely suggests that she only became ambassador because of her connections, all while touting his own business tycoon buddies whom he’ll tap to solve America’s various international problems.
“Take a combustible mix of the most depraved and filterless half-wits, scam artists and asylum Napoleons America has to offer, give them all piles of money and tell them to run for president. Add Donald Trump. And to give the whole thing a perverse gravitas, make the presidency really at stake,” Taibbi writes. “It’s Western civilization’s very own car wreck.”
So what are the implications for Asia? Speaking at a rally in Alabama, Trump zinged the Japan-U.S. alliance.
“What kind of deal is it that we have with Japan?” he asked the crowd. “If they come under attack, we have to defend them. If we come under attack, though, we’re on our own!”
Trump didn’t mention shared values or common threats, so maybe he wants to introduce the pay-as-you-go mercenary system he proposed for the Middle East, where recipients of U.S. security assistance will have to provide credit card details first. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe considers Japan-U.S. security ties a blood alliance, but under Trump, Uncle Sam’s rescue services would be on the meter.
It’s inconceivable that any U.S. ally wants Trump in the White House because he would undermine the entire U.S. alliance system. China might not like Trump’s yellow-peril fear-mongering and scapegoating, but must be delighted that he could single-handedly make Beijing look like the reliably reasonable partner in Asia. How about a Trump Tower on one of those new reefs in the South China Sea?
Trump is the 21st-century answer to U.S. politician William Jennings Bryan: like the Platte River — a mile wide at the mouth and 6 inches deep.
A former White House official told me that Trump represents an “American nativism that can result in highly unpredictable policies. For example, you could imagine him hitting it off with Abe because he likes his muscle-flexing, but you could also imagine them getting into a spat over World War II.” Keep him away from Vietnam.
So whom might Trump get along with in Asia? He is spoiled for choice in a region brimming with quirky leaders. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott comes to mind, but forget about filling basketball player Dennis Rodman’s shoes when it comes to courting Pyongyang. Former U.S. diplomat Rodney Armstrong thinks Trump would see a kindred spirit in former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara in what could be a true fraternity of blowhards.
“The old LDP farts probably wouldn’t find him too strange,” Armstrong says, referring to Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party. “They would assume that he was under the control of his bureaucracy and free to be irresponsible like themselves. Unfortunately, that would be a misapprehension.”
Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies in Honolulu, thinks there is no indication that Trump has anything other than a name to trade on.
“Anyone sitting across the table from him who isn’t wowed by his aura will eat him like M&Ms,” he says. “It is hard to take him seriously — except as an expression of the ugliest elements of the American id.”
In Glosserman’s view, Trump is “the verbal equivalent of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s various he-man endeavors.”
Temple University Japan political scientist James Brown says Trump thinks “he would get on really well with the Russian leader and would be able to draw Russia away from China.” As an icebreaker, “Trump and Putin could also discuss cosmetic enhancements” — perhaps exchanging views on comb-overs and Botox injections.
Getting into the trumpery of Trumpism, University of Connecticut historian Alexis Dudden hazards that Trump will “make America great again” by “sinking the islands that Japan contests with China and Taiwan — and with Korea, too. The ones Russians live on? ‘The Donald’ would have Vlad and Shinzo swim naked for them in the Sea of Okhotsk. He might join in to show who is the man.”
Howard French, a professor at Columbia’s School of Journalism, noticed Trump’s retro-jingoism during the Alabama rally.
“He specifically said he’d ‘bring jobs back’ from Japan,” French says. “It’s been a long time since I’ve heard Japan spoken of in such terms, maybe not since Ross Perot, another wealthy populist demagogue.”
Republicans are supposed to be pro-Japan, but Trump apparently didn’t get the memo.
“All of Asia should hope he never finds out that more immigrants come from Asia than from Latin America — just imagine the outbursts,” said one former White House official. It’s not that easy to build a wall across the Pacific Ocean and the Mexicans won’t pay for that one either. Trump also wants to stop granting citizenship to babies born in the U.S. of foreign national mothers without permanent residency, a demographic that includes lots of well-to-do Chinese who have spawned a maternity tourism industry. Like Abe, Trump doesn’t think the U.S. Constitution applies to his agenda.
So what are Trump’s foreign policy credentials?
“Since he owns the Miss Universe pageant, Trump must be an expert on global affairs,” jibes Colby College’s Walter Hatch. Indeed.
However, Michael Cucek, a lecturer at Sophia University, reminds us that “as the essential nation, the U.S. cannot indulge itself with electing a boorish moron as its president. The U.S. has already tried that once this century with devastating results.”
In a Kraft cheese field of ludicrous dolts, Trump stands out like a ripe Gorgonzola.
“Trump is the P.T. Barnum of American politics but with a serious twist: he’s given Americans who are so tired of ‘politics as usual’ and political correctness an outlet to feel free again,” says Nancy Snow, professor emeritus of communications at California State University, Fullerton.
“In Asia, wouldn’t Trump be respected for his business skills more than anything? He’s rich, lost it all and then gotten rich again,” she says. Perhaps “Asian leaders would be a bit awed by that, even though they would be perplexed and pissed by his grand gestures of dissing, whether it’s Mexico one day or China the next.”
While conceding the obvious appeal of Trump’s blustering buffoonery, my colleague Kyle Cleveland asks, “Whatever happened to Occupy Wall Street and pervasive contempt for the ‘1 percent’?” Good question.
Let’s hope Typhoon Buffoon fades into nothing more than a tropical depression.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.