Two Trumpian Mysteries
-Why did Trump win over 70 million votes?
Why is his outrageous behavior unchecked?-1
(A lecture at the 29th SSDP discussion session on December 10, 2020)

Kazuhiro Maeshima
Professor, Sophia University

1. A "Sensationally" Close Contest

This time, I am asked to speak on a very intriguing topic, "Two Trumpian Mysteries --- Why did Trump win over 70 million votes? Why is his outrageous behavior unchecked?" Some keywords --- "sensational," "predictable," "inevitable," etc. --- would help me to solve these mysteries.

Things like the Trump phenomenon were not exceptional in American history. The recent presidential election was in the first place a "sensationally" close contest. The enormous number of votes was also "sensational." Looking from a longer perspective, the Trump phenomenon and the resulting political polarization has been taking place. President Trump's language is deteriorating in quality. Yet, it is not an "outrage," but rather a political performance that calculates audience reaction. Is the Trump phenomenon "alien" to American soil? Not at all. In American history, small voices criticizing the distortions of society occasionally grow into a large swell and come forth on the stage of politics.

The 2020 presidential election ended with the same number of electoral votes as 2016 (Clinton vs. Trump) --- 306 to 232 with a 74-vote margin. NHK reported Biden's overwhelming victory, but that is not the case. The recent presidential election was a close contest. Nationwide, Biden won a historic 80 million votes, but Trump also won 74 million; the percentages of votes were 51% favoring Biden and 47.8% for Trump.

As for the elections of electors, the battle was much closer in the five states of Pennsylvania (with a voting difference of 1.18%), Michigan (2.78%), Georgia (0.26%), Wisconsin (0.63%), and Arizona (0.31%). These are the states that Trump won in 2016, and Biden has won them back this time acquiring 73 electoral votes. President Trump was absent from the campaign trail for ten days due to corona infection; if he had not contracted the disease, he would have more actively canvassed for votes, and the gap would have narrowed. Taking off his mask, Trump made those enthusiastic speeches, while Biden, respecting social distancing, disseminated his messages online. Republicans repeated door-to-door visits to their supporters. Democrats did not. These differences had a significant impact on the election results.

The congressional elections were also very close. In the House of Representatives, Democrats maintained the majority but lost more than ten seats. Republicans will likely dominate the majority in the Senate, albeit by a small margin. It was anticipated that the reelection of many congressional seats might adversely affect Republicans, but the result is that they will surpass the majority threshold. Republicans fought well in the congressional elections despite the defeat of President Trump.

2. Over 70 Million Votes --- A "Predictable" Result

Trump's winning over 70 million votes should be construed as "predictable" rather than "mysterious." He spent these four years rewarding Republican supporters and consolidating their support for himself. Trump is the first American president who tried to explore support in such a straightforward and, in a sense, "practical" manner. Four years ago, people said, "Is he a true conservative? He does not belong to the mainstream of the Republican Party." But for the last four years, Trump has aimed for the Republican mainstream and become its leader.

Mainstream Republicans comprise "small government" promoters and religious conservatives. President Trump holds fast to "small government," implementing sweeping tax-cuts and deregulation. Republican supporters look upon US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement as deregulation. President Trump argued that the Paris Agreement is a Chinese machination to devastate the US manufacturing industry. He withdrew the United States from the Agreement, calling the withdrawal "deregulation." By many accounts, President Trump is not really a religious conservative; he has never completely read the Bible. But before the Republican convention in summer 2016, he nominated Mike Pence as a vice presidential candidate, whom many agree to be the most enthusiastic evangelical congressman. Besides the appointment of three Supreme Court judges after his inauguration, President Trump appointed many conservative judges for high courts and district courts, following a list prepared by a conservative legal association called the Federalist Society. He recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved the US embassy to that city to fulfill evangelicals' wishes. He laid siege to Iran hostile to Israel and went so far as abandoning the Iran nuclear agreement and killing Commander Soleimani to benefit religious conservatives.

In addition to these two groups --- religious conservatives and evangelicals ---, the white blue-collar workers, although not large in number, are becoming one of the mainstream Republican groups following the Tea Party movement. Trump won the 2016 presidential election by building support among white blue-collar workers in Rust Belt states. He is pushing forward with a trade war with China, also for the benefit of these white people. Policy measures such as the review of NAFTA, the US-Japan trade agreement, and the US withdrawal from the TPP were all implemented for the same purpose. By the end of his term of office, President Trump will also have implemented immigration bans on Muslim countries as part of his efforts to restrict immigration from countries capable of exporting terrorism and a partial US military withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan.

In short, the Trump phenomenon has centered on benefitting its supporters; it is, therefore, "predictable" that support for President Trump is rock solid. I think Biden's diplomacy will head in a diametrically opposite direction from Trump's. Nonetheless, Biden's America will take an inward-looking diplomatic stance as a continuation of Trump diplomacy; the United States will "no longer be the world's policeman."

According to a Gallup survey just before the 2020 presidential election, President Trump's approval rating was 46%, which is low compared to his predecessors. But 95% of Republicans and 3% of Democrats supported him; the difference is 92 points --- the largest margin since his inauguration.

President Trump failed to address the COVID-19 crisis. He seems to have thought that COVID-19 is a problem for cities on the west and east coasts (Blue states/areas) and that the anti-racism movement is also a problem peculiar to large cities. President Trump believed it to be correct to reopen the economy for his supporters. He thought it right to deal with the anti-racism movement by using "law and order" because the latter is "rational."

280,000 Americans have so far perished by COVID-19, and 15 million have contracted the virus. The Civil War, the deadliest warfare in American history, killed about 800,000 civilians. A little less than 400,000 Americans perished in World War II. The number of COVID-19 victims is now approaching that of American WWII victims.

The United States is now in a situation where there is no substantial policy discussion; the divisive question of mask-wearing hindered COVID-19 countermeasures from being properly discussed. Political polarization has progressed to such an extent as to make impossible performance evaluation voting for the Trump administration. Conciliation among people has become difficult. The current political situation is deviating far from mandates entrusted by the people. Concerns are mounting about possible conflicts and intensifying tensions among the people toward the 2022 midterm elections.

3. Trump Phenomenon is "Inevitable" --- Political Polarization

It is quite "natural" for President Trump to have received enthusiastic support because his policy measures benefited his supporters. Looking, on the other hand, from a little longer perspective --- longer than the recent four years ---, we will understand the "inevitability" of the Trump phenomenon.

Not only have the conservative and liberal camps alienated each other, but political polarization has gradually progressed over the last 40 years, where unity and ideological cohesion within each camp have increasingly intensified. For example, the difference between Republican and Democrats' approval ratings for President Trump is about 80-90 points. Meanwhile, the difference between Democrats' and Republican approval ratings for President Obama was 50-70. Again, the difference between the two parties' approval ratings for President Clinton was about 30 points. The disparity has widened for the last 20-30 years.

In terms of political party support, the conservatives are becoming more and more supportive of the Republican Party, while the liberals are becoming more and more monolithically united in support of the Democratic Party. For the last few years, a symmetric equilibrium has existed between the two camps. Polarization and divide and rule politics (a twisted relationship between President and Congress) impede politics and increase political distrust. Such a situation raised expectations for the Tea Party movement, Occupy Wall Street, and outsiders. Then there was the Bernie Sanders phenomenon and the appearance of Trump followed.

Why has the current political polarization occurred? Slow but steady changes over the last 50 years have now reached a culmination point. Few decades in American history witnessed such events in succession as the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the Democratic Party's involvement in the civil rights movement, and the women's liberation movement following the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling in 1973 (which legalized abortion across the country). And in the 1970s, the southern states gradually became Republican, and in the 1980s, evangelicals emerged as a political force. In the last 40 or 50 years, southern democrats decreased on the one hand while the liberal Rockefeller Republicans in the East Coast headed for disappearance on the other hand.

Also, in the last 30 or 40 years, the American election industry flourished. It is quite a simple business; it exhaustively asserts, "We are right; you (the opponent) are bad." Furthermore, the so-called "Gingrich Whirlwind" also helped to intensify congressional confrontation. In the 1994 elections, the Republican Party won a congressional majority, which was their long-cherished wish. Gingrich, who contributed to that feat, became Speaker of the House from the following year and consistently encouraged partisan conflict. As a result, the congressional confrontation became fierce. In the 1970s, half of Republicans and half of Democrats jointly pushed various bills to the then President --- which accounted for many environment-related bills passed under the Nixon administration. At present, 90% of senators and representatives unite if not bound by party discipline --- which is mostly related to the fact that at the time of the gerrymandering of congressional districts once every ten years, what matters is which party dominates which state; the partisanship has become more purified.

Meanwhile, the environment surrounding American voters has significantly changed. As the Internet went widespread from the latter half of the 1990s, a new phenomenon called "filter bubble" appeared. The Internet filter allows the user access only to pieces of information of his liking while rejecting his access to other information that does not suit him. President Trump dismisses information he does not accept as "fake news." The environment that nurtures such thinking is becoming ubiquitous.

Reviewing the trend in the past 30 years, I would like to conclude that the Trump phenomenon is "inevitable."

4. Outrageous Behavior Calculated to Look Like Natural

President Trump speaks an ungentlemanly language that sounds outrageous. But it is calculated to sound "natural," although it sounds obnoxious. In a sense, he resembles the Japanese Internet tycoon Takafumi Horie (nicknamed Horiemon) in expression. In the 1980s, when he first attracted media focus, Trump was a sensible speaker with a rich vocabulary. Now he has picked up a strategy of delivering an easy-to-understand message to his supporters by using "naturally" simple coarse words.

President Trump is responsible for the current omnipresence of fake news in American society. He declares any news inconvenient to him to be fake. It is also his strategy.

Another strategy of his is to have allowed no expert in his administration. Before the Trump administration started, Republican think tanks had declared that they would never join it. Trump answered by unfolding criticism of the deep state (shadow government), saying, "These members of the Establishment prioritize their own interests and make society worse." Experts have had no access to the administration. President Trump nominated Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State and Michael Flynn for National Security Advisor, but eventually dismissed those non-mainstreamers. His direction of the dizzying political drama was as "natural" as his direction of a television variety program he once hosted. All who remained were a handful of people like Peter Navarro.

The speed at which information is released is also significant. In the social media world, quick response is crucial; it may be a demagogue or a populist that responds actively using social media. To put it positively, President Trump is responsive, as far as he is positioning his policy while paying attention to public opinion.

President Trump's strategy of distinguishing "enemies from allies" always targets the media dealing harshly with him. When asked if they trust the media, 73% of Democrat supporters answered in the affirmative, but only 10% of Republican supporters trust it. It seems that President Trump believes that the more he attacks the media, the more he will receive support as long as his supporters do not trust the media.

5. Is the Trump Phenomenon Alien? --- "Not at All"

I think that the Trump phenomenon is "not" alien "at all." When considering US diplomacy, the decades from the post-WWII period through the present time may be distinctive in American history. There is much mention of "the active role of the United States in the international community" or "the decline of American leadership." But it is the period from the end of WWII to the mid-1960s that the United States assumed world leadership. Although the term "international liberal order" is of recent origin, the original concept became popular in the United States after World War II. How many Americans know this fact? Today, skepticism about free trade, anti-TPP feelings, etc., are shared by both the Democratic and Republican sides.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are alike in that they must have been destined to disappear like the former third parties. The third parties are the "agents of reform" that have frequently appeared in American political history. They disappear after having attempted some temporary reforms. Among the populists in the past are Andrew Jackson, who in the 1830s advocated politics for the common man, the People's Party in the 1890s that called for the removal of monopolistic enterprises and relief for the poor, and the Prohibition Party movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jackson hijacked the Democratic Party as Trump did the Republican Party, but the other populists vanished. In relatively recent 1992, independent Ross Perot urged administrative reform, tax cuts, deregulation, and small government. His policy proposals were eventually taken in by the established political parties. For example, all the policy measures Perot urged in 1992 were later stolen by Gingrich, who then crafted them into a Republican agenda. Perot launched the Reform Party in 1996 but to no avail.

Trump's America first-ism is also to disappear in due course. Yet, it is a reform within a major political party, which is a novelty that distinguishes him from other populists. Trump wanted to fight the 2000 presidential election as the Reform Party candidate. But Buchanan gained the party nomination and, even worse, lost the election. Trump learned then that a third-party candidate could not win the presidential election. At a 2016 Republican presidential primary election debate, Trump replied "no" when asked whether he would go to any third party if he failed to gain the party nomination.

Joe Biden will adopt some of the Trump administration's policies, such as the recovery of the manufacturing industry. However, regarding countermeasures against COVID-19, racial equity, and climate change, he will likely pursue different policies from Trump's. He will have to spend the next four years on rectifying the course of American politics. In that sense, Trump may be the one who will disappear, leaving short-lived rings in the water.

Lastly, I would like to present the results of a multi-answer survey undertaken by the Chicago Council regarding which foreign policy issues Republicans and Democrats consider to matter most. Republicans identify traditional security challenges as the most critical threats: 1) the development of China as a world power, 2) international terrorism, 3) the large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the United States, 4) domestic violent extremism, 5) Iran's nuclear program, 6) a global economic downturn, and 7) North Korea's nuclear program. Their concerns are roughly identical with the issues that the Trump administration has worked on in a populist manner. Democrats are most concerned about: 1) the COVID-19 pandemic, 2) climate change, 3) racial inequality in the United States, 4) foreign interference in American elections, 5) economic inequality in the United States, 6) a global economic downturn, and 7) political polarization in the United States. Their concerns converge chiefly on domestic issues rather than diplomacy. Democrats and Republicans diverge on US foreign policy; partisan differences are evident.

As experts will join the Biden administration, its foreign policy foci may not necessarily mirror Democrats' concerns illustrated in the above results. The Chicago Council survey clarifies that the US political society is polarized. The polarization will, in turn, affect US diplomacy.

(This paper was edited by the SSDP secretariat as the minutes of Maeshima's lecture.)

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