Priorities for the Japanese Economy in 2017 (January 2017)

The Trump Administration: Meaning and formation

Visiting Fellow, RIETI

Plenty has been said about Donald Trump's victory in the U.S. presidential election. Yet, as a Japanese sociologist based in the United States, I would like to offer my view on the matter and what I believe the future holds.

On the day of the presidential election, I felt a sense of disbelief about the results of the presidential election. However, I never thought the outcome was out of the question. Earlier, when Trump was chosen as the official presidential candidate for the Republican Party, I had already felt as though our worst fears were coming true, rather than something completely unthinkable coming out of the blue. One of the reasons that these results did not come about as something unthinkable was the state of the Republican Party as described in The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney, published in 2005. The book reported, citing specific examples, on how the Republican Party, especially during the George W. Bush administration (2001-2009), expressed skepticism toward "policies based on scientific evidence" and rejected any influence of sciences on policies. Here, "sciences" refer to academic empirical studies concerning human health, environment, education, social medicine, etc. Studies that did not agree with the philosophies of Christian fundamentalism were rejected with hostility in particular. This book sounded a warning against the Republican Party's political shift toward the rejection of sciences and rationalism.

Historically, Europe and the United States have both been part of the Christian world, but there is a fundamental difference between the two. The majority of Christians in the United States are Protestants, and about 30% of them are estimated to be Christian fundamentalists who are against abortion, believe that homosexuality is a sin, and reject Darwin's theory of evolution. In contrast, Christian fundamentalists are a very small minority in Europe. The problem is that the Republican Party has gradually transformed itself into a party that enjoys the backing of these Christian fundamentalists as a stable support base.


The Republican Party's historical transformation is detailed in "Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere" by Gordon Gauchat, published in one of the United States' leading sociology periodical, American Sociological Review, in 2012. He analyzed data from the General Social Survey, spanning approximately 35 years from 1974 to 2010, and verified that U.S. conservatives transformed from being more pro-science and rational than liberals and moderates to the greatest anti-rationalists who distrust science in the 2000s. Gauchat attributes the change to the emergence of the New Right, who are skeptical and hostile toward the social impact of studies conducted by universities and research institutes. According to his research, this distrust in science among conservatives has spread across the U.S. population at an accelerated pace since the 1990s, especially under the George W. Bush administration. Those distrusting science are not limited to Christian fundamentalists. They are characterized by a high rate of church attendance, do not have education beyond the secondary level, have relatively low income, and are residents of the southern United States. However, the association of education level and distrust in science among conservatives has been changing over time, with distrust spreading to even those with university education, according to Gauchat.

The process of selecting the Republican Party's presidential candidate occurred amidst the emerging tide of the science-distrusting, anti-rationalist New Right. It was Trump who resonated with their sentiments. This is why his selection was something we all feared becoming reality, rather than something completely unthinkable.

What can be said about the presidential election itself? I previously wrote a research paper regarding U.S. voting behavior. The paper focused on factors that affected government support rating fluctuations during the George H.W. Bush administration (1989-1992). His government's support rate was about 60% in 1990, but jumped to over 80% in 1991 following the successful liberation of Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War. In 1992, however, then-Democratic Party presidential candidate Bill Clinton pointed out the Bush administration's failure in handling domestic economic policies. This brought the government support rate down to around 40%, and George H.W. Bush subsequently lost the re-election to Bill Clinton. I examined the cause and result of George H.W. Bush administration's instability. I discovered that, in the United States, support for a political party (Republican Party or Democratic Party) is more stable than support for an individual president or presidential candidate. Public support is more stable when Republican Party supporters are supporting a Republican Party president or candidate or when Democratic Party supporters are supporting a Democratic Party president or candidate. Voter behavior becomes extremely unstable when there is a lack of consistency between the political party and the president or presidential candidate they support. The strong support for the Bush administration, recorded in 1991, included support from many Democratic Party supporters, and therefore lacked stability.

How does this finding apply to the latest U.S. presidential election? Historically, this was the most difficult election for which to predict the result. On one hand, some traditional Republican supporters voted for Hillary Clinton because they found some of Trump's stances unacceptable, e.g., his discriminatory remarks against specific racial, ethnic, and religious groups as well as women, and his protectionist economic approach. On the other hand, some supporters of the defeated Democratic Party candidate Bernie Sanders became dissatisfied and voted for Trump or abstained from voting out of a sense of distrust of Clinton. Other Democratic Party supporters also did not feel that Clinton would adequately address the deepening trend toward economic inequality in the United States. As seen in the history of other countries, when both the right and the left become dissatisfied with the present state of society, they collectively go against the moderates who represent the status quo. Many left-wing Democratic Party supporters also resonated with Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan. In the latest presidential race, the largest segment of voters had inconsistent support between a political party and a presidential candidate. This caused extreme instability in the voter support landscape.

Another factor for instability in the election was the increased impact of online information, which diminished the influence of traditional journalism. In the days before the Internet, broadcast and print media were the primary source of information for the general public. Considering that most broadcast and print media, including those that are traditionally politically neutral or Republican-inclined, expressed support for Clinton, her victory should have been all but guaranteed. Clinton's arguments during the presidential race were mostly free of any contradiction with facts, while Trump made numerous statements that were not factual. This, as well as his sexist and racist remarks, caused traditional media to dissociate themselves from him. However, in the online world, people with absolutely no journalistic background posted remarks as if they were of the same merit as statements made by professional journalists. In fact, many of them were critical of traditional media and threw their support behind Trump. What should be noted is the behavior of the New Right, who are skeptical and hostile toward science and rationalism. They reject "objective evidence" and choose to believe in what they want to believe. The New Right chose to describe media criticism of Trump as "conspiracy in collusion with elites," and used online commentaries to spread this notion to other people who wanted to "Make America Great Again." In this sense, the information delivery system of the online age that cannot separate the wheat from the chaff, coupled with the emergence of the anti-rationalist New Right, handed an excessive opportunity to Trump, who was supported by those who believed in what they wanted to believe, lacked rationale, but nevertheless was stable in their belief and thereby showing greater voter turnouts for the support of Trump than Clinton supporters.

Now that the election is over, Japan has shifted its focus on issues with direct implication with national interest, e.g., future outlook of the Japan-U.S. relationship, national security, and economic globalism under a new government to be led by Trump. This is quite a natural progression of events. Yet, there seems to be an alarmingly large number of optimists who believe Trump will adopt a more sensible stance once he becomes the president of the United States. I am extremely cautious about such optimistic speculation. In the United States, Trump's victory is seen as a challenge to the country's principles of multiculturalism and diversity that have been fostered along with the development of broad human rights awareness over the last half century, as well as a challenge to the U.S. tradition of scientific rationalism. Trump's support base is made up of those who are strongly dissatisfied with these mainstream values amidst the country's deepening inequality. Given his excellent skills in populist strategy instead of political ideal, Trump would not adopt policies or political approaches that could cost him his support base. His election promises of cuts in corporate and income taxes, protectionism, and public works spending for job creation might temporarily buoy America's domestic economy. However, in the long term, these policies will undermine the nation's fiscal health and weaken U.S. competitiveness. "Making America Great Again" indeed is a pie in the sky. The problem is that his policies could lead to disregard of evidence-based rational judgments in politics and the rise of right-wing populism that lacks principles. This could add fuel to racial or ethnic confrontation, depriving the country of opportunities to take advantage of the abilities of diverse human resources, and unleashing American society's hidden violent and irrational aspects in political and social scenes.

What is most important for Japan is to establish solid policies that will stay unaffected by possible confusion within the United States. It is unclear how long the Trump administration will last. Due to the reasons given above, the current political climate in the United States is highly unlikely to be a temporary phenomenon. Yet, it would be wise for Japan not to take this opportunity to cater to the government led by Trump, which does not have the support of the majority of United States' intellectuals. Assuming that the United States can always be trusted is wrong, and so is assuming that it cannot be trusted anymore. In order to build a relationship of trust, Japan must first establish an unshakable stance for itself.

December 28, 2016

January 10, 2017