Don’t Fear Trumpism too Much, East Asia – You’re Already Governed by It


The following is a local re-up of an essay I wrote for The National Interest recently. That essay was edited. The original is below, and I think it is better.  

The text in the picture is Chinese and reads: “Donald J. Trump super fan nation, Full and unconditional support for Donald J. Trump to be elected U.S. president.”


That Trump has sympathizers out here makes sense – even though he bashes the region all the time – because he obviously got a lot of his political ideas from East Asia: Mercantilism, race nationalism, hostility to immigration, huge distrust of Islam, oligopolistic mega-corporations dominated by interlocking family and crony networks, soft authoritarianism, manipulating the state to benefit politically-connected insiders, golf – that’s Trumpism. But it’s also the de facto governing ideology of contemporary Sinic-Confucian East Asia.

I remained convinced that Trump learned about East Asia primarily through the ‘declinist’ school of the 1980s. The popularized version of that argument was Michael Crichton’s 1992 novel Rising Sun. Given that this is Trump we are talking about though, he probably just watched the movie instead. This is why he talks about Japan so much.

What just amazes me is that Trump simultaneously has a 35-year history attacking the East Asian (mostly Japanese) nationalist-developmentalist model while pretty much proposing to bring it to the United States now if he gets elected. Trump is basically acting like what he thinks Japanese businessmen acted like in 1985 – just with an extra thick layer of idiocy and know-nothingness on top . Why does no one else see this? So if you are Japanese, maybe you can be proud in a weird way (lol): Trump thinks he’s you, just turning the tables.

The full essay follows the jump.



One of the (many) ironies of Donald Trump’s emergence is the general dislike for him in East Asia, especially among American allies, who clearly want Hillary Clinton to win the presidency. For ‘Trumpism’ actually channels pretty well how much of East Asia is governed in practice. To be sure, East Asian elites are not much like Trump himself – thankfully. They are business-like (to the point of leaden), not prone to outbursts, far more serious and better versed, and so on. But Trumpism will likely outlive its bizarre tribune this year, and once shorn of the Orange One’s shenanigans, East Asian elites should find its message quite familiar. Trumpism – nationalism tinged with racism, trade mercantilism, hostility to immigration and Islam, border control, disdain for the media and transparency, family-based business oligarchy, semi-authoritarian political style, and so on – is more or less the unstated ruling consensus in places like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and China. Consider a few issues:

Immigration & Ethnicity

Japan and South Korea have some of the lowest immigration rates in the developed world. This is by design; it is difficult to obtain long-term visas for anyone who is not an English teacher. The non-native populations of South Korea and Japan are in the low single-digits. And those that do live there are almost always an out-group rarely occupying positions of authority in the private or public sector. China, technically with over fifty distinct ethnicities, has ‘Han-washed’ these cultures and standardized languages and customs throughout their borders. It has ‘encouraged’ Han internal immigration to non-Han areas, most famously Tibet, and enforces standardized Mandarin in public schools to compel integration.

Trump has called for a complete ban on Muslims entering the country, and has questioned accepting Syrian refugees. Like Trump’s base, East Asia is intensely critical of Islam and has accepted virtually no refugees the Middle East. The select few that do make it face discrimination and diminished expectations, and even in democracies like Japan and Korea, they are treated poorly. Muslims in China are repressed and suspect; in Singapore they are informally locked-out of power.

Trade & Mercantilism

In addition to congruent views on immigration, Japan, Korea, and China share similar Trumpian views on trade: there is a finite amount of pie on the table and a bigger slice for others means a smaller slice for us. Trump’s evaluation of agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as “bad deals” that allow the other to “take advantage of us” mirrors mercantilist attitudes in East Asian agricultural and manufacturing industries. Even democracies like Japan and Korea continue to throw up NTBs to protect their national champions: take for example the half trillion in government subsidies dished out to Korea’s biggest conglomerates last year – Samsung, LG, and Hyundai to name a few.

China, of course, is worse. The difficulty foreign firms have there – with corrupt officials, politicized investigations or tax treatments, corporate espionage, and so on – are well-known. Some of the world’s largest tech companies – arguably America’s foremost export – have limited footprints in the country, ceding market share to Chinese domestic alternatives. When deals are completed for foreign company expansion, there are often the result of joint ventures between Chinese firms and private international entities. These arrangements frequently insist on tech transfers and other concessionary privileges in exchange for market access. This sounds much like what Trump wants to do.

China also uses trade as a geopolitical weapon as Trump proposes. When the Philippines tangled with China over the Scarborough Shoal in 2012, China immediately stopped accepting bananas, mangos, and other tropical fruits that represent a significant portion of Filipino exports. Only once Manila backed down and withdrew their complaint did trade flows resume.

Semi-Authoritarianism and Dislike for Free Media

Trump’s authoritarian flirtation is also reflective of East Asia’s political style, where executives are very powerful, legislatures are weak, media are crippled by libel laws and ties to state actors or corporations, rule of law is often bent to accommodate wealthy businessmen and nationalist pressure, and so on. Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan all have outsized executives only weakly constrained by legislatures. I have had students refer to the South Korean presidency as an elected monarch. In these system, decision-making comes from the top, and there is little the opposition can do in key areas such as foreign policy or criminal justice.

Civil liberties in China, South Korea, and Japan are relatively weak. Mr. Trump, in his calls to deport 11 million people without due process and his removal of journalists from events are eerily similar to South Korea revoking the passport of a Japanese reporter and trying him for defamation. Large parts of the internet are entirely blocked in China. Japan has dropped to 72 out 180 nations on the World Press Freedom Index, behind such countries as Madagascar, Georgia, and Niger.



Trump is arguably a reaction to multiculturalization of America. He speaks to those looking for a traditional nationalism of race and soil. This has always sat uncomfortably with America’s formal constitutional tradition of credal nationalism, but in East Asia this paradox scarcely exists. To be sure, biracial Japanese, Koreans, and so on exist, but discrimination against this small minority is genuine problem. Instead, race and language are broadly still the populist determinants of nationality, and nationalism, often with racial and grievance overtones westerners find reminiscent of the 19th century Europe, is the overwhelming regional ideology. To be sure, much of this is Hegelian myth-making – the building of nationalist historiography for contemporary state purposes. But the point is that East Asia is very much of the modernist-nationalist mind-set regarding the state and its borders, much as Trump voters are. When Trump says, ‘if you want to have a country, you have to have borders,’ East Asia embodies that today probably more than any other part of the world.

Since the 1980s, Trump has followed – as much as he as able to, I suppose – Asia; he was an original Japan-basher back in the day. What an irony that, for as much as he dislikes the region, he is now importing its mercantilist-nationalist trade model to the US.

Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly) is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. More of his work may be found at his website:

Filed under: Asia, Domestic Politics, Elections, Japan, Media, The National Interest, Trump

Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University