Early Reflections on the Donald Trump Presidency
Benjamin A. Peters, Ph.D
Professor of Political Science Miyazaki International College
John Ralston Saul, Canada’s leading public intellectual, calls the era in which we live an interregnum — a transition period in which one era has come to an end and a new one has not yet clearly emerged. In his analysis, the era which has come to an end is globalization. We hear the buzzword “globalization” every day in the news, so we may doubt that the era of globalization has come to an end. However, Saul argues that more and more people, especially in the developed countries, have begun to give up on the promises of globalization.
They have begun to doubt that globalization will result in steady economic growth and an increase in the number of high wage jobs, and they have lost hope that globalization will close the income gap between the rich and the poor. Globalization has not solved these problems and has, in fact, made them worse. As a result, people in the long-stable developed countries are losing confidence in their leaders and national policies. Proponents of globalization are on the defensive, and, according to Saul, we do not know yet what system will emerge to take its place.
It was in this context of transition that Donald Trump entered the field of presidential candidates. It is well known that he built his campaign on attacks against the American political and financial establishments and the media; he called into doubt the benefits of free trade agreements and long-standing alliances, like the one between the United States and Japan; and he spoke for populist nationalist who have been on the margins of American politics. In other words, every plank in his platform was an attack on the status quo of globalization.
Despite losing the popular vote, he beat the odds to win the 2016 presidential election. Now he has cast himself as the model politician of the anti-globalization movement. Of course, Trump was not a politician before becoming the president. He was the owner of a private business who never had to answer to shareholders or a board of directors, and he was a celebrity who became famous for his wealth, intemperance, and bravado.
He had little in common with the average voter, but when people who felt left behind by globalization saw him attacking powerful people in the political and financial establishment, they recognized him as a powerful person who spoke on their behalf and said the things they wished that they could say to powerful people. And so, he became their champion.
Jonathan Rodden, a professor of political science at Stanford University, has done a precinct-level analysis of voters in states won by Trump — especially states in the so-called “rust belt” like Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The data show that in these states, Hillary Clinton was able to win a majority of votes in most towns that had industrial centers or a university. The problem for the Democratic Party was that voter participation was lower in those areas than in the surrounding rural areas where white voters are a majority. It was in those surrounding rural areas where Trump won majorities, and voter participation was higher in those areas in this election. Those voters do not have jobs in the global economy – for example, in industry, manufacturing, and technology.
On one hand, the data suggest that in the decisive rust belt states, the Democratic Party could still win in towns where there was some connection to the global economy through industry, manufacturing, or the so-called knowledge economy. On the other hand, voter participation increased in areas where people have few connections to the global economy, and they voted in large majorities for Trump.
Trump’s unexpected election victory along with his loss of the popular vote shocked supporters of Hillary Clinton and Trump’s opponents within the Republican Party. Because of unprecedented actions taken by the FBI during the last weeks of the election campaign and accusations of foreign interference in the election, many Americans question the legitimacy of Trump’s election victory. In addition, Trump’s bigoted rhetoric during the campaign outraged most Americans. And his threats to undo trade agreements and upend alliances panicked allies of the United States.
Simply put, Trump’s election victory has thrown the United States and the world into turmoil. The question now is will the Trump administration be able to implement its policies?
Only 55% of eligible voters participated in the election, and Trump won 46% of the votes. In other words, Trump won the election with the votes of 25% of all of the eligible voters. However, it is likely that just less than half of the people who did not vote also supported Trump or were willing to give him a chance as president. That explains why public opinion surveys show support for Trump between 40 and 50%.
It is hard to imagine that a majority of Americans will ever support Trump. As the 2016 election showed, however, the electoral system currently favors the Republican Party. Simply put, Trump does not need the support of a majority of voters. In order to govern, Trump must maintain the support of Republican members of Congress. Many of them doubt that Trump is a bona fide Republican, but they are in a difficult position.
First of all, because of Trump’s surprising election victory, many Republican politicians think that Trump has a magic touch with voters. One consistent tactic of his campaign was to rouse the deep emotions of voters — emotions like pride and humiliation, resentment and anger. The Republican Party also used these emotional appeals in their obstruction of the Obama administration for the last eight years. However, senior Republican leaders know that these emotions are not easy to control once roused, so they were careful not to push the emotions of their supporters too far.
Trump, on the other hand, let the genie of deep emotions out of the bottle. As long as Republican party leaders believe he can control the genie and that they can win votes in their home districts, they will continue to support the Trump administration. In less than a year, all of the members of the House of Representatives will begin re-election campaigns as will about one-third of the members of the Senate.
If Trump maintains his support with rural white voters, it is hard to imagine Republicans in Congress opposing him or his policies. If they do oppose him, he will attack them publicly; he will support Republican candidates who challenge them; and he is even likely to go to their local districts and appeal directly to the voters. He and they know that his direct appeal to his voters’ emotions is his greatest strength as a politician. This is one reason why many Republicans in Congress are avoiding a confrontation with Trump. They are supporting him even though his administration is in disarray and even with accusations of Russian interference and treason against his close advisors.
Of course, the Republicans also need Trump to support their legislative agenda. After obstructing the Obama administration for eight years, the Republicans finally have the chance to implement the policies they have been promising to their supporters. On many policies, especially socially conservative policies supported by rural white voters, the Republicans are running out of time. American society is steadily becoming more ethnically diverse, and people’s attitudes are becoming more socially liberal. On issues that Republicans have opposed like marijuana and gay marriage, for example, public opinion has flipped in less than fifteen years. Now majorities of Americans support both. If Republicans are going to fulfill their campaign promises on social policy, it’s clear that they will need Trump’s support.
However, Trump also poses great political risks to the Republican Party in terms of his economic policies. Many Americans did not regain a sense of economic security after the economic crisis of 2008, and Trump focused his supporters’ negative emotions of humiliation and resentment on attacks against two pillars of globalization: free trade and immigration. The popularity of these attacks among his supporters shows that they oppose globalization while most Republicans back free trade and many are willing to compromise to some extent on immigration.
Trump has also proposed spending up to $1 trillion on infrastructure. Such a policy is anathema to the Republican Party with its focus on “small government”. If he is able to get Congress to allocate substantial funding for infrastructure, however, he may gain new supporters who are disconnected from the global economy and who will benefit from the relatively high wage jobs that such a policy will create.
From this, it seems clear that Trump’s success in the 2016 election is an indication that support for globalization in the United States is collapsing. It is also clear, though, that Trump does not know what to replace globalization with. He seems to be looking backwards to the 1980s when politicians last stoked American voters’ emotions of humiliation and resentment, for example against Japanese automakers, and advocated trade protectionism.
One of the questions looming now is how long Trump will be president. It seems like an odd question just one month after his inauguration. He has already announced plans to seek reelection in 2020, so he clearly plans to stay in Washington for eight years.
Currently, the Democratic Party is unified in its opposition to Trump, but it lacks both a national leader and a coherent electoral strategy. The Democratic Party does not have enough seats in Congress to block legislation or to impeach the president, and the electoral system disadvantages the party in the 2018 Congressional election. The party is likely to have majority support among the electorate, but its voters are too concentrated in coastal urban areas and inland cities to guarantee victory in the 2018 Congressional elections.
It is well known that the media played a major role in Trump’s success as a candidate. However, now most of the major media organizations are critical of the Trump administration. Announcers openly question Trump’s mental health, accuse him of lying, and claim that his administration was influenced by the Russian government. Some say this is the worst crisis since the Civil War or even in the history of the United States. In return, Trump accuses the media of fabricating stories and calls them a threat to the country. We have never seen anything like this, and there is a feeling of confusion and crisis in America and panic throughout the world.
Perhaps the most troubling result of this crisis are the rumors — even among major media organizations — that agencies of the United States government like the CIA and NSA are taking action to undermine the Trump administration. Former directors of the CIA and NSA openly endorsed Hillary Clinton during the presidential election, and now there are reports that these agencies may be surveilling the Trump administration, leaking information to the media, and withholding national security information from the president.
Even more troubling, some Democrats and even some Republicans who oppose Trump are suggesting that these agents should launch a “soft coup” against Trump. It is unbelievable that such a possibility is discussed openly and in the news, but it is indicative of the sense of crisis. Such an action by government agencies against Trump would also be an attack on constitutional government.
A majority of Americans may disagree with Trump’s policies, but any action to remove him from office that lies outside of the constitution and undertaken by unelected officials would violate America’s constitutional values.
The argument goes that Trump could be removed extra-judicially through the justifications of patriotism (愛国心) and national security, but this argument reveals both patriotism and national security are empty categories that mean whatever people who have power say they mean. President Trump can just as easily motivate his supporters with the same words by portraying himself as the true protector of the country and its security.
An alternative is to advocate for constitutional patriotism (愛憲法心), or an allegiance to the constitutional values of the American political community. The United States Constitution embodies fundamental values like representative government, citizen sovereignty, individual rights, and the rule of law. Those ideals are declared as essential features of American politics – even when they are not fulfilled.
Americans who oppose President Trump and who valorize America’s political ideals should oppose actions like “soft coups” by unelected officials inside the government. However slow and uncertain, those opponents must instead exercise their rights to speak out and organize against the Trump administration, build a constitutional case against Trump and use legal procedures to remove him from office, and work to elect representatives who they believe will uphold their constitutional values.
At the same time, we should take the Trump administration as indicative of a transition period that began even before he became president. And if this is true, then much is at stake not just for people in the United States but around the world. On one hand, there is the possibility of returning to a previous era of national chauvinism and trade wars until a new alternative emerges. On the other hand, there is the much more difficult but urgent task of building a 21st century economy and international community that can actually satisfy people’s economic needs along with their needs for a sense of belonging in community, the ability to make meaningful choices in their livers, dignity through mutual respect, and peace.
** This article is one in a series of articles written by faculty members of Miyazaki International College reflecting on timely issues from different disciplinary perspectives. The views expressed above are those of the author alone. They do not represent an official position of Miyazaki International College or Miyazaki Education Institute. **