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Why Trump is dangerous: Thoughts after the 2016 U.S. presidential election

Ikuko Toyonaga
Professor at Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University

A little after 4 p.m. on November 9, 2016 (Japan Standard Time), I turned on the TV to see the results of the U.S. presidential election. I was stunned by the news of the Republican candidate Donald Trump's victory. Around the same time, I received a barrage of messages from friends of mine in Japan and abroad. One of them just groaned, "A nightmare has come true….” Another yelled, "Wouldn’t you rather listen to Schubert over and over than get the news? " They all seemed to be upset by Trump's victory (Incidentally, none of them are American). I was also petrified for some time.

Why did the Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton, who was thought to win the election without doubt, lose? In particular, after the televised presidential debates, wasn't the prospect of Clinton’s victory certainly unwavering? This question crossed my mind first. Though still disturbed, I hypothesized a few reasons for her defeat.

One was the role played by mass media. I do not know if they had the intention of making their election reports interesting, but instead of taking the opportunity to put an end to Trump’s campaign which they surely had more than once, they made him endure as a serious candidate up to the last day of the election. It is certain that Trump became a perfect news material with his provocative, stand-up comedian-like speeches, extravagant career as one of America's prominent celebrities who had kept making headlines in gossip columns over the past several decades, and many extreme campaign pledges that aroused curiosity. Interestingly, in this presidential race, every time Trump's campaign faced a crisis, America's mass media repeatedly said, "In this election (meaning, since the Republican nomination race) Trump has caused unprecedented things to happen. No one knows what could happen next." It is entirely plausible that this cliché allowed the candidate to survive, creating an atmosphere clandestinely expecting the unexpected in many living rooms of America.

Another was the carelessness of supporters of the Democratic Party and a wider range of people who were opposed to Trump. A considerable number of voters who assumed that Clinton was certain to be elected might have withheld their vote for the Democratic candidate, in order to express their dissatisfaction with and protest against Clinton or the current Obama administration. There might even have been Democrats who voted for Trump, believing that Clinton would still be voted in for Office either way. In a way, they tried to punish Clinton and the Democratic Party, and ironically, their intentions turned against them.

Having written thus far, I sigh. No good can come of the mass media treating elections as entertainment and voters growing tired of politics or starting assuming election results, allowing themselves to abstain from voting or to cast a giveaway vote. On November 9, many voters and mass media personnel must have gone pale when they saw the consequences of their actions. It's almost as if I can hear them say, "I should have acted differently," "I could have done more," or "This result could have been avoided." To confess, I am myself ashamed of having completely been unprepared for the event on November 9, assuming that Clinton would be elected.

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Regardless, when I stop and think for a moment, I am reminded of the fact that after all, Trump was the Republican Party’s official presidential candidate. It was when the political pendulum was swinging towards the Republicans; in other words, after President Obama from the Democratic Party served two four-year terms in Office, it was unlikely that a Democratic candidate would be elected as president. The results of several upper- and lower-house elections of the Congress in recent years imply that a time for the Republican dominance has arrived. In that sense, it could be said that the election ended with a reasonable result. Rather, the predictions for Clinton to win the election define Trump’s profound unpopularity. He had been abandoned even by the Republican establishment because he had been such an unlikely presidential candidate.

In fact, Trump continuously projected images as an inappropriate candidate who should not even be considered. The following policies put forward by him during the election campaign sufficed to show how dangerous he is.

(1)Immigration policy
Immigration policy appears to be the alpha and omega of Trump's political scheme. He repeatedly declared to "forcibly repatriate ten million illegal immigrants” and “build a wall along the border with Mexico to prevent the inflow of immigrants." These pledges became his signature policies. He also proposed to not allow Syrians and Muslims to enter America, marking them all as “terrorists.” Trump referred to these exclusive policies as indispensable measures to eliminate crimes committed by immigrants and prevent terrorists from entering the country. Concurrently, he linked these policies with bringing back jobs for Americans struggling with unemployment, putting them forward as if they were surefire remedies for all social problems. Trump also suggested considering other measures to tighten regulations for entry into America, limit immigration, and exercise stricter control on foreigners in the country. The emergence of a presidential candidate like Trump, who has no respect for American history (it is a history of a nation formed by immigrants, after all) and does not even make the slightest pretence of appreciating it, is perhaps a completely new phenomenon. (What lies at the root of American nationalism is people’s sense of being descendants of immigrants. This is why it is difficult to call Trump a "nationalist.")

Needless to say, controlling the movement of people for whatever reason (race, religion, and origin are likely reasons among others) is an infringement on human rights – removing them from where they live and banishing them from the country are flagrant cases. Those who are well aware of 20th century history would immediately recall the Holocaust by the Nazi and shudder. With ill rationale, the idea of exiling a particular group of people could quickly turn into the idea of exterminating them by genocide. (Take a moment to think about what to do with such people who do not have a place to go. At best, the solution would be to send them to concentration camps.)

(2)Energy policy
Another issue that alerts us to Trump’s danger is his energy policy going back to the use of coal. As coal mines and power plants are forced to close one after another, he visited coal-mining areas and promised to revive the coal industry. And to that end, he advocated relaxing the environmental regulations imposed on coal mining and coal-burning power generation. This campaign promise came out when the government and industry had already made the policy decision to abandon fossil fuels. It was also just when the use of coal, in particular, which emits the largest amount of CO2 among all fossil fuels, was looked at especially problematic. Trump’s policy seemed totally out-of-date. In fact, Trump is for the use of fossil fuels in general, not just coal, but also petroleum and natural gas: He is skeptical of the account that CO2 emissions cause global warming in the first place: He is prepared to scrap, not only the Obama administration's program to reduce CO2 emissions in the country (the Clean Power Plan), but also the Paris Agreement on international action plans to mitigate global warming. Thus, it appears that he is returning everything to one generation back.

This anachronism of Trump's, however, should not be underestimated. His policy of returning to coal is his magic wand. This magic wand deludes people to dream that if they use the inexhaustible coal reserves under American soil, America would become self-sufficient in energy and achieve independence. Put differently, America would be freed from association with - dependence on - overseas oil-exporting countries. It would not need to be dragged into wars that happen overseas any more, or troubled by terrorisms that come from overseas (Here, "overseas" specifically refers to Middle Eastern countries, which currently supply oil and other energy resources to America. Incidentally, they are the countries of Muslims Trump wants to expel from America). Moreover, like a second shale gas, coal could perhaps boost the American economy. As described thus far, coal could contribute to laying the foundation for making America “great” in diplomatic, security, and economic terms.

And more than anything else, increased production and use of coal would secure employment for coal mine workers and enable economic revival in coal-mining areas. Regions that formerly prospered thanks to coal mines but suffer chronic depression and unemployment today would be brought back to life due to bolstering by Trump. The jobs of coal miners would be protected, and many communities on the brink of extinction would survive. Such communities might even have an economic boom, with new jobs created in large numbers. If voters in coal-mining regions who evaluate this vision favorably should give their vote to the Republican Party’s Trump, their vote would have a large impact because these regions have traditionally been the Democratic Party's strongholds.

If Trump's immigration policy is a negative policy that responds to current dissatisfaction and anxiety of his supporters, his policy of returning to coal is a positive one that speaks of visions and benefits he offers his supporters. It evokes an image of an America independent from the oil-producing Middle East and an America swept by a coal boom; it promises industry for provincial areas, revival for local communities, and jobs for individuals. Furthermore, linked to the diplomatic, security and economic policies mentioned above and constituting industrial, regional, and labor policies in itself, Trump’s coal policy masquerades him as a politician with a comprehensive plan for a new administration that adequately covers important policy areas. Such active presentation of visions and benefits by Trump and the apparent completeness of his plan for government could lead those voters who felt strong empathy with, say, his immigration policy, but were unwilling to elect a president for any negative policy or support a presidential candidate who has only one policy to talk about.

However, if this energy policy is actually implemented, its outcomes are likely to be nothing but reckless local development and environmental destruction by the coal business. America's return to coal would also drive developing countries to consume more coal and make it difficult for the international community to work to reduce CO2 emissions. If such countries expand coal use using low technology, they would also aggravate environmental contamination. Peering into the future of this path, one would get a glimpse of Earth that is smutty and contaminated, probably full of holes, as global warming progresses rapidly.

(3)External policy (protectionism and isolationism)
As Trump emphasizes in his external trade policy, protectionism is shaking America as well as the entire world. Trump clarified his intention of giving priority to protecting American producers rather than upholding the principle of free trade, and declared that he would levy 45% customs duties on imports from China and 35% on imports from Mexico, for example. In addition, he is critical toward all free trade agreements and suggests that the U.S. should withdraw from not only the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), for which admission negotiations are still under way, but also the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Needless to say, if America ceases to look at itself as the leader of the free trade system as it did in the past, acts as an advocate of protectionism, and closes its huge domestic market to other countries, the world economy and economies of individual countries would come to look completely different. However, Trump does not seem to care about that. On the whole, his arguments for external policy indicate that he is going to lead America to isolationism. His insistence on the need to reform the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and mention of his intention to withdraw America from the Paris Agreement sent shock waves around the world. It was obvious that he does not understand the importance of multilateral frameworks of cooperation created by the international community with much effort.

What underlies these policies is Trump’s indifference toward efforts to build and maintain global order and his contempt for international rules, arrangements, and joint undertakings. Obama made many people in his and other countries expect that the American president would finally become the president of the world. Trump shattered the expectations of these people to pieces. It goes without saying that people who anticipate the American president to play the role of the world’s leader, including those who, somewhere in the world, live in a situation in which all they could do is hold on to the faint hope that the American president would take action, could never accept Trump as a presidential candidate.

Well, it is unknown just how much his protectionism and isolationism would plunge America and the world into confusion. What is more frightening than anything else is that these policies mean a return to the 1930s. Trump's America closely resembles America at that time which prompted the interwar international order to collapse and paved the way for the triumph of totalitarianism in Europe and World War II.

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These three policies bespeak Trump's indifference to (even contempt for) human rights, the environment, and the world. After all, each policy may be intended to court popularity, win more votes, or show favor to particular interest groups or businesses. Either way, however, they would not be conceived unless Trump is indifferent to these values. When human rights, the environment, and the world are neglected, we are in danger. The fundamental danger of Trump lies not in his opportunism or nepotism, but in his indifference to these values. At first glance, anti-Trump demonstrations organized immediately after the election results came out seemed to be the hysteric actions of the defeated, but an analysis of his policies as described above clearly shows that they were not a mere partisan response.

Incidentally, Trump's ideology that has not been announced yet in the form of policy can be seen through his speech and behavior. His speech and behavior illustrate him this way: He takes little interest in poverty and conflicts in the world, and associates with dictators easily. He is a white supremacist and belittles women. He is indifferent to arbitrary preferential treatment for particular individuals and organizations, and fails to distinguish between public and private matters. He does not recognize that all people have human rights and has a stereotyped way of discussing individuals and groups (He assumes that all Mexican immigrants are criminals and that all Muslims are terrorists, for example). He is enthusiastic about maintaining order but is not interested in justice. Usually, presidential candidates try to carefully avoid words and deeds that suggest these attitudes, but Trump brought them into the center stage of politics by showing that a presidential candidate (and now even a president) can have these attitudes and still be supported.

What is tricky about Trump, however, is his unrestrained way of speaking like a stand-up comedian, which makes listeners feel unsure of how serious he is. It seems that both Trump’s supporters and opponents who get alarmed by his radical remarks comfort themselves by thinking, “He is just exaggerating,” or “He is not serious after all,” and end up rather enjoying his "show." Moreover, his extreme words are not unfamiliar. At the individual family level, it may perhaps be similar to, say, what one’s father might say in daily life. In other words, on the part of voters (at least, in private environments away from public debates and social positions), there probably lies the foundation for accepting Trump's extremity. Furthermore, his comedian-like speeches are full of stereotyped, effective phrases, which make listeners feel satisfied and convinced. However, these phrases consist mainly of negative ones that are intended to appeal to the anger and hatred of the audience and stimulate their discriminatory sentiments. In this respect alone Trump is dangerous (It is strange that hate speech, which is prohibited by law, was not brought up in the presidential campaign). Therefore, we should not feel rest assured just because Trump did not excite the audience enough to create a furor. His image and ideology have steadily seeped among people by sneaking into their living rooms, repeating his poisonous remarks.

As described above, Trump's policies, speech and behavior indicate how Trump is dangerous. He won the presidential election, nevertheless. It is not that his threat was overlooked during the election campaign, but that people let down their guard despite his danger, or because of it (as it appears to be too unrealistic). I am not saying that Trump will become another Hitler. However, the impression is that an American president (Trump) has recognized and is actually putting into practice those policies and ideologies that a dictator like Hitler would favor. For the next four years, or for the next eight years if he is reelected, we must not let Trump’s presidential existence be the norm, or lose the awareness of danger Trump poses. In addition, we had better be careful not to be misled by the images of lightness and easiness of politicians that we enjoy in our living rooms. Otherwise, the world will be full of dangerous leaders in five or ten years.

Ikuko Toyonaga
Professor, Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University

Ikuko Toyonaga graduated from the Faculty of Law, the University of Tokyo. After serving as associate professor at Faculty of Law, Kyushu University, she assumed the present position in 2004. She obtained her doctorate in law from the University of Tokyo. She specializes in political science, in particular, comparative politics. Her publications include The Paradigm of Thatcherism, Revised Edition (Keisoshobo, 2010), The Scope of Neoconservatism: Transformation of Politics under Nakasone, Blair and G. W. Bush (Keisoshobo, 2008), “Ozawa Ichiro (Part 1, Part 2)”(Sekai, nos.806-807, July and August issues, 2010), “Why Hilary Lost” (Waseda Online’s <Opinion> column, June 30, 2008), and Ikuko Toyonaga's Small Works Collections (posted on the author's website).