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What's Causing the Trump Phenomenon?

Takashi Yoshino
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

World trends

Two different trends are now in conflict with each other: an outward-oriented trend (i.e. globalization and internationalism) and an inward-oriented trend (i.e. domestic focus and xenophobia).

One of the most prominent examples of such conflict is the EU, which is suffering from the influx of Muslim immigrants and refugees to its member countries. Western Europe took in labor from many outside countries when it was expanding. In the 1980's, however, far-right political parties opposed to foreign labor gained influence. As the number of Muslim immigrants increased, some countries started reevaluating their multicultural policies, which symbolized their globalization strategies. Going against this trend, in August 2015 Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany announced its acceptance of Muslim refugees in response to the rapid influx—which started in the spring of 2015—due to the prolonged Syrian civil war. Later that year, the Paris terror attacks occurred in November. Meanwhile, even more refugees poured into the EU. Eventually, in March 2016, the EU had to agree with Turkey that all immigrants and refugees smuggled into Greece would be sent there, except for certain exceptional cases. Facing the conflict of the two trends, the EU had to rethink its traditional policies.

Delegate count (as of April 21)
Republican Party: nomination requires 1,237 votes

D. Trump 844
T. Cruz 543
(M. Rubio) (171)
J. Kasich 147

Note: Rubio has dropped out of the nomination race. The 171 delegates who supported him must vote for him on the first ballot at the national convention, but are then free to vote for whomever they want from the second ballot onward.

In another part of the world, the same inward-outward conflict—albeit in a different sense—has become a point of dispute in domestic politics. In America, for the 2016 presidential election in November, the race for the nomination from the two major political parties, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, has entered the home stretch. For the Republican Party, real estate tycoon Donald Trump has been leading in the polls despite his outrageous and inappropriate comments and being called a demagogue. His proposals for making America strong again include: 1) restricting the intake of immigrants as they take jobs from Americans; 2) banning Muslim immigrants from entering America because they might engage in terrorist attacks; 3) demanding that Japan increase its burden of costs to maintain American troops in Japan; and 4) imposing countervailing tariffs on China for manipulating its currency. These are nothing but inward-oriented (domestic prioritization) measures. At the same time Trump is proposing traditional Republican measures including significant tax cuts, government finance reform, and the repeal of Obamacare. As a result, many moderate Republicans will feel forced to vote for Trump in the general election if he wins the nomination. Some are looking for causes of this Trump phenomenon within the Republican Party. According to them, white Republicans tend to be racists who feel that immigrants are taking their jobs. The "monster" called Trump came along when grassroots conservatives gained power through the Tea Party movement and political chaos was on the rise. Therefore, the Trump phenomenon is solely a product of the Republican Party.

Trump's popularity is not the only strange phenomenon

Democratic Party: nomination requires 2,383 votes

H. Clinton 1,948 (1,446 + 502)
B. Sanders 1,238 (1,200 + 38)

Note: In addition to the delegates from the primaries and caucuses, 712 uncommitted Super Delegates, consisting of national and state party officials and Democratic National Committee members, can vote at the national convention. The total numbers above include votes from super delegates who have announced their choice.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/us/elections/

(Accessed on April 21, 2016)

The state of the Republican Party described above is a superficial view that highlights only one aspect of American politics. The Democratic Party, too, has a dark-horse candidate. Contrary to expectations that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would lock up the nomination early, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders has been doing well. These unexpected developments tell us that many of both Republican and Democratic supporters are extremely frustrated or disappointed, and such emotions have translated into momentum and the strong support for unexpected candidates.

Hillary Clinton is supported by the Democratic elite. They want her to be the first female president in American history and are interested in liberal policies including improving gender equality and the status of minorities. Meanwhile, there are Democrats who are not only low-wage earners, but are on the wrong side of the economic divide and are not attracted by traditional Democratic policies. It’s not surprising for these people support Sanders, who criticizes large corporations and demands that disparities be corrected, university education be free, and medical insurance be reformed.

Within the Republican Party, the moderate and right-wing factions have been in conflict for the past few presidential nominations. The moderate faction demands finance reform and tax cuts, and is willing to compromise with the Democratic Party if necessary. On the other hand, the more conservative faction strongly demands more limited government and the repeal of Obamacare, and opposes compromise with the Democrats. The moderate faction includes elite Republican Party leaders while the right-wing faction, including the Tea Party movement, has a strong influence on the U.S. Congress. There are, however, Republican supporters who do not benefit from the traditional Republican or more right-wing policies. It is natural that these people openly criticize traditional elite measures and support Trump, who speaks to their emotions. According to a survey, many Trump supporters have a high school degree or less, feel politically powerless, and live in areas with stronger racial insensitivity.

Borrowing the words of Toshihiro Nakayama, on the Democratic side "the sense of stagnation spreading among younger generations due to widening disparities" has allowed Sanders to leap forward, and on the Republican side "fear of the downfall of white people whose vision has become lost in globalization" has allowed Trump to become the front-runner (from the Koron column, Asahi Shimbun, morning edition, March 1, 2016).

Three reasons for erupting frustration

Why have these frustrations surfaced during the presidential nomination process? The following factors will give us insight. The first factor is America's unique political system. American politics is based on a federal system and a strict separation of powers. Building national consensus is by nature time-consuming, and is even more difficult in a country with a large population and diverse needs. Decisions cannot be made quickly, and forced compromise often leads to frustration of many people involved (a cycle of compromise and frustration). The second factor is the positions of political parties and the nomination process. The two major parties, the Republicans and Democrats, are privileged by the structure of state laws. Getting elected to public office virtually requires running for one of them. Within these parties, presidential candidates are first selected through primaries and caucuses. Since anyone can run for the nomination, the party leadership cannot reject unorthodox candidates. The third factor is the accumulated frustration of the electorate and emergence of candidates who take advantage of this frustration. Since the mid-1990's, American government has been divided. More specifically, the President has belonged to one party and the majority of members in the Congress to the other party. Politics stagnated during this period of divided government, and the electorate became even more frustrated by a series of lukewarm compromises. In the meantime, the immigration problem that may pose a threat to America became the center of political debate at the same time that the electorate was starting to notice a decline of America's political and economic status in the world. Sanders from the Democratic Party and Trump from the Republican Party, fully understanding the frustration and despair of the electorate, both opted to run with unconventional policy proposals.

The outward-inward issue gets influenced by other domestic problems to create a different picture in different countries. In America, regardless of who is nominated and who becomes the next President, the urgent tasks are correcting disparities, restoring the middle class, and defining America's responsibilities from a global perspective. The strategy the next administration takes in addressing these challenges will also determine the policy stance—whether it be outward oriented or inward oriented.

Takashi Yoshino
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

Born in Nagano prefecture in 1954, Takashi Yoshino specializes in Anglo-American political science, political parties and elections, and American politics. Yoshino graduated from Waseda’s School of Political Science and Economics in 1978 and completed a Ph.D. in the Graduate School of Political Science in 1988. He worked as an research associate, lecturer and associate professor before becoming a professor of the Faculty of Political Science and Economics at Waseda University in 1995. During his career at Waseda University, he has also studied at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (July 1984 to June 1986); been a visiting fellow at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University (March 1991 to March 1993); served as Dean of the Waseda University Organization for Japan-US Studies (2010 to present) and Director of the Organization for Regional and Inter-regional Studies at Waseda University (2015 to present).

His major publications include: "America no shakai to seiji" [The Society and Politics of the United States of America] (co-authored), Yuhikaku, 1995; "Gendai no seitou to senkyo" [Contemporary Political Parties and Elections] (co-authored), Yuhikaku, 2001 (revised in 2011); "Dare ga seijika ni naru no ka" [Who Becomes A Politician?] (co-authored), Waseda University Press, 2001; "Obama go no amerika seiji: 2012 daitoryo senkyo to bundan sareta seiji no yukue" [American Politics after Obama: the 2012 Presidential Election and the Future of Divided Government] (co-authored and edited), Toshindo, 2014; and "Ronten: nihon no seiji" [Discussion: Japanese Politics] (co-authored and edited), Tokyo Horei Publishing, 2015.