Table Speech

My Thoughts on the Donald Trump Administration

February 15, 2017

Mr. Kensuke Okoshi
Editor-in -Chief, News Department,
Japan Broadcasting Corporation

 I was assigned to NHK Washington DC Bureau from 2005 to 2009 and then served as an anchor for “News Watch 9.” I am now in charge of making a 100-minute specialized report series “A World in Upheaval” every two months as Chief Reporter of the News Department. Having worked as a political reporter in different bureaus, including the USA, I currently travel around the world and report on critical global trends and international affairs that impact Japan, based on my own analysis.

 Since last year, “populism” has been the major theme of my series. Terrorist attacks of November 2015 in Paris claimed many precious lives and raised anti-Muslim sentiments. The leader of French National Front Party, Marine Le Pen, gained widespread support. I became intensely interested in the future of Europe as I observed that populism instigated people’s negative feelings and exclusiveness.

 Just then, the UK decided to hold a Referendum and vote on whether to leave or remain in the European Union, a community which had brought benefit to the country. As the UK is made up of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England, nationalism is complexly intertwined with their divided background. I predicted the Referendum result would exert an enormous impact on a global scale. As we all know, the UK made a surprising decision to exit from the EU.

 Around that time, US Presidential candidate Donald Trump was gaining overwhelming support at the Republican Party Presidential primaries. I found many similarities between the UK Referendum and the Trump phenomenon but it was hard to identify the underlying common factor. We now have US President Trump. The Netherlands will hold a General Election in March, followed by the French Presidential election in April. I am currently working on the series to analyze the link between populism and the Trump phenomenon and how it could impact the whole world.

 Populism is an inherent part of democracy. It is a political phenomenon, compatible with any ideological content. Populist leaders resort to three tactics. They break the taboos and appeal to the public with provocative remarks. They also set up imaginary enemies. And they criticize the established structure of power and elites. Today, we witness the progression of populism across the globe, most noticeably seen in the Brexit Referendum and the US Presidential Election.

 Populism in itself is not evil. Politicians, after all, need to win elections by attracting voters through appealing policies. As one political theorist rightly put it “populism is a shadow cast by democracy itself”. When I covered the Trump election campaign, I noticed a typical populist tactic in his rhetoric. He constantly blasted political correctness, tilting at windmills and blaming the Mexicans for unemployment. When I studied the Trump supporters in depth, I admit I was quite surprised to find good people with open-minded views and impartial judgment on the current situation and both the strength and weakness of Donald Trump. They entrusted Trump to change the world and frankly shared their thoughts with me. I found similarities among Brexit supporters. I must say I had been biased against these supporters, thinking they were weird radical people, until I talked with them and realized that they were the majority who cast their votes in good faith to change the world. It is easy to blame populism for instigating negative feelings and increasing risk, but we must take a more constructive approach and identify the factors that have given rise to populist movements.

 One factor that made Trump win the election was the frustration shared among the so-called “rust belt workers” over the massive changes in the manufacturing sector that led to job losses and urban decay. I observed the government had failed to address inequality and safeguard the middle-class lifestyle. Another factor was the growing anti-elitism anger and anti-establishment rebellion. I must name Senator Bernie Sanders, the closest rival of Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Presidential nomination, as a key player behind the stunning victory of Donald Trump. Growing popularity of Sanders resulted in Hillary’s failure to consolidate support within the Democratic Party and made her a deeply unpopular politician among Sanders’ supporters. Young supporters were attracted to Sanders’ intellectual and thoughtful arguments that focused on minority rights and education, advocating to reduce the burden of college scholarship and tuition costs. I found a common ground between Sanders and Trump supporters. They shared the anti-elite and anti-establishment sentiments that fed into an anti-Hillary stance.

 Europe is about to have a series of elections that could pave the way for the rise of right-wing populist political Parties. The Dutch Party for Freedom and its leader Geert Wilders is enjoying a surge of popularity, while in France Marine Le Pen is the front-runner in the Presidential Election to take place in April. Both Parties take a radical and nationalistic stance. Yet history proves that you have to pay a high price for allowing populist groundswell to run unchecked. I believe there is a mechanism that brings populist surges under control among European countries as they have learnt lessons from the past. Let me close my speech that reflects my personal observation from travelling around the world for news coverage.