Commentary / Japan

Trump’s populist nationalism

by Yoichi Funabashi

On the morning of Nov. 9 (Japan time), as voting in the U.S. presidential election was underway, I joined the guests of U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy at her official residence in Tokyo. The idea was to gather with other friends of the United States as the election results came in and share in the excitement of celebrating American democracy.

At 10:30 a.m., Kennedy made a brief address. “There are a number of national holidays, such as Veterans Day, that are important to me. But presidential elections, which come just once every four years, are particularly special.” Kennedy highlighted the presidential elections of 1960 and 2008. In 1960, her father, John F. Kennedy, was elected president after the first televised debate, and in 2008 Americans elected Barack Obama as the nation’s first African-American president. Kennedy suggested that the election this time, in which Americans would decide whether or not to elect their first woman president, would be a third historic election.

Ironically, the initial mood surrounding the expectation of a Clinton victory changed shortly after Kennedy’s speech. Donald Trump was ahead in Florida and Ohio. By 11:30 a.m., there was a growing sense that something was very much amiss.

Due to a lunch appointment, I left the ambassador’s residence shortly thereafter. On my way out, I stopped to talk with a high-ranking official of the Foreign Ministry. At that point, he still had no doubt that Clinton would emerge victorious in the end. To tell the truth, I shared his confidence. Despite those early indications to the contrary, I remained certain that Clinton would win in the end. My reading of this election proved to be wildly off base.

There were numerous indications that Clinton would have a hard time winning. But I mistakenly assumed that decent Americans would not allow Trump to win the presidency.

With some humility I can now reflect upon my mistaken assumptions, and I find myself returning to the words of a friend I met in Washington late last August: “I think there is a gap in the ways that the elites and the general public react to Trump. The elites don’t take Trump seriously, but they take everything he says literally. Ordinary people don’t take Trump’s every word literally, but they do take him seriously.”

What I think my friend meant by this was that the average angry American didn’t hang on Trump’s every utterance. These Americans were happy to support Trump simply because the elites feared him. This was what they took seriously. But the elites viewed Trump as a transient phenomenon; from the beginning, they never took him seriously as a political adversary. Elites were reluctant to accord any political legitimacy to the white supremacist undertones of Trump’s statements. They wanted to eradicate the power of his words.

The fears of the anti-Trump class will only grow once he enters the White House.

The Trump administration may well engage in an unprecedented amount of mudslinging with the media and Congress. The Nixon administration sought to reorder the world by moving closer to China and ending the dollar’s convertibility to gold. After creating an endless stream of internal enemies, the administration was finally brought down by the Watergate scandal. The coming Trump administration threatens to harbor political pathologies of similar fragility.

If society becomes characterized by intolerant divisions, in which people immediately select their allies and dismiss others as foes based on such criteria as race, ethnicity, religion or lifestyle, then democracy’s foundational principles, rooted in careful deliberation and compromise, will be rendered inoperable.

Build walls. Impose tariffs. Protect those who pay up. “Stabilize” the world by encouraging other countries to acquire nuclear weapons. Trump will immediately upend the current world order if he transforms these campaign pledges into government policies. And if American politics descends into populist nationalism, it will join other forces — such as the post-Brexit fissuring of European integration, and the defiant actions of Russia and China, which view the American and European-led order with hostility — in forcing a major retreat of the liberal international order.

Specifically, the following principles of the liberal international order could be destroyed:

1. Development propelled by globalization and problem-solving through technological innovation.

2. The spread of democracy as a means of establishing peace.

3. The development of a shared consciousness of global solidarity and comradery (“Spaceship Earth”) through a common response to climate change.

4. Nuclear weapons as a deterrent through the equilibrium of fear.

5. U.S. military power as an “insurance policy.”

In the post-Cold War era, Americans dreamed of a “new world order,” in which the spread of democracy and the free market would almost automatically bring about a fairer, more peaceful world. That dream is over.

However, Trump’s populist nationalism is equally intent on destroying the “American postwar order,” including the Bretton Woods institutions and the system of alliances after the end of World War II.

After its wartime defeat, Japan developed into a major economic power and, while being protected by the security alliance with the U.S., pursued the goal of contributing to world peace through nonmilitary means. However, the very foundation of Japan’s “global civilian power” is now being shaken up.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and former editor-in-chief of The Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly magazine Bungei Shunju.