Trump doesn’t need to win the presidency or even the GOP nomination to have impacted America’s relationship with Japan. For Japan, a close ally and trade partner of the United States, the idea that someone whose ideas of the U.S.-Japan relationship are stuck in the 1980s is alarming. The mere fact that he’s a leading candidate of a major political party has already done incredible damage to the U.S.’ reputation as a responsible, mature democracy. President Barack Obama (as with most Americans overseas) has said that when he meets with foreign leaders the question he most often receives is about what’s going on in U.S politics. The answer to that is complicated and equal parts reassuring and discomforting.
First, Trump doesn’t know what he’s talking about. There have been enough thorough deconstructions of his ideas, especially regarding his views of Japan, to make retread of his exaggerations and bluster redundant. But what’s missed in these takedowns, even if the point is made implicitly, is that his statements don’t represent a philosophy or worldview beyond the statements themselves.
And those statements are themselves often unashamedly contradictory with what he may have said before. It’s true that Trump is a black box in the sense that no one can say for certainty what his administration will look like in terms of staffing or how it will function in the minutiae, but in terms of the underlying philosophy, it’s very open and extremely banal.
Second, Trump is almost completely isolated in his views. His foreign policy team consists of a 2009 college graduate who lists attendance at a Model U.N. conference as a credential, a former Defense Department inspector general who regularly drew allegations of impropriety, and Trump’s own brain. It goes without saying that the Republican foreign policy establishment views him as a disaster and is staying away—when pundits say that Trump represents a rejection of the past 50 years of Republican foreign policy, never mind U.S. foreign policy, they’re not exaggerating. His views, whether about immigration, torture, NATO or Japan, aren’t held by anyone outside of him and his voters, and that extends to almost the entirety of the Washington policy community. His staggering unfavorability ratings indicate that he’s isolated among the American population as well.
The troubling part is that the above points—his ignorance and his isolation—are helping to propel his campaign. The populist movements that have roiled politics in France, the United Kingdom, Greece, and elsewhere now have their American analogue. Trump and his voters represent what may be an emerging and profound realignment of American politics—in other words, while the odds are against Trump to win in November, the basic movement that he represents is going to stay.
Beyond discrete policies like immigration, counterterrorism, or free trade, the noise surrounding those issues represents a long-simmering rejection of establishment politics that has found a voice to express it. While Trump’s discrete policy views are isolated, his popularity grows from his willingness to express anger at “the way things are,” reflecting a general disillusionment felt by many voters who felt that political elites weren’t listening.
The modern Republican Party has relied on a coalition assembled by Ronald Reagan of national security hawks, free market adherents, and social conservatives that is beginning to splinter. Democrats, though less dramatically, are being pulled left by a progressive wing that sees the response to the 2008 financial crisis as insufficient and incomplete, which is in turn fired by more assertive activism that is uncompromising in its goals.
Dictating both realignments is a profound antiestablishment sentiment that speaks different languages but shares a disillusion that blames past and existing leadership for their grievances. Both parties were able to sublimate these movements to varying degrees in the past, but this election has shown that is now more difficult.
Political realignments, populism, and antiestablishment sentiment are nothing new in American politics but the political alignments that Japan has become accustomed to working with and uses as a prism to understand the U.S. are fundamentally changing. Deadlock between the executive and legislative branches will probably worsen and political leaders in general will have new and more assertive constituencies to be accountable for.
The policy community that provides expertise and continuity to U.S. foreign policy is largely unchanged but the political coalitions in both parties that undergirded their influence are more fragile and unpredictable than at any point in the history of the U.S.-Japan alliance. The U.S. debate over trade policy, with objections coming from both sides of the political spectrum, is a good example of where it may go, but the divergence between campaigns’ messaging and Americans’ preferences for trade make it unclear what will happen to U.S. trade policy in practice.
Japan may not have a vote in this election, but it certainly has a stake in the outcome. The reality of a Trump presidency would surely force Japan to reevaluate what it could expect from the U.S., if not the alliance itself. Trump’s isolation in his views, especially toward Japan, means the alliance remains on solid ground. But Japan and its leaders, like their American counterparts, will need to acclimate themselves to more unpredictability in American politics.
Paul Nadeau is a private secretary for a member of the House of Representatives.
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