Laughing at Trump in Japan misses the point—and plays right into his hand

Nothing—truly nothing—to see here.
Nothing—truly nothing—to see here.
Image: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
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Donald Trump’s trip to Japan has been predictably dotted with supposed faux pas: He scolded Japanese automakers by asking them to make cars for the US market in America—but they already do. He fed koi by dumping a whole box food in the pond, while his host Shinzo Abe looked on a bit startled, patiently waiting to drop the food in the water bit by the spoonful.

As much of the social-media world had it, Trump lived up to the image of the grotesque, laughable US president we’ve grown accustomed to in the past eight-plus months. Both incidents went viral as gaffes.

Except the reality was different. His comment on the auto industry as well as the visuals of his koi-feeding approach were taken out of context. And that’s no joke.

The whole story matters

Trump did tell Japanese manufacturers to “try building your cars in the United States instead of shipping them over. Is that possible to ask? That’s not rude. Is that rude? I don’t think so.” However, he said that in the context of a speech that clearly acknowledged the fact that car carmakers such as Mazda and Toyota have been investing in US manufacturing.

Here is the quote, in context. The perception changes quite a bit:

Several Japanese automobile industry firms have been really doing a job. And we love it when you build cars — if you’re a Japanese firm, we love it—try building your cars in the United States instead of shipping them over. Is that possible to ask? That’s not rude. Is that rude? I don’t think so.(Laughter.) If you could build them. But I must say, Toyota and Mazda — where are you? Are you here, anybody? Toyota? Mazda? I thought so. Oh, I thought that was you. That’s big stuff. Congratulations. Come on, let me shake your hand. (Applause.) They’re going to invest $1.6 billion in building a new manufacturing plant, which will create as many as 4,000 new jobs in the United States. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

Similarly, he also did dump the whole box of koi fish in the water—right after Abe. That’s just how it’s done.

This was totally fine.
This was totally fine.
Image: AP Photo

Why the focus is misplaced

What’s concerning here isn’t just the misleading nature of the reports—which seems deliberate—but just how quickly it spread and fed the “buffoon president” narrative that was the natural continuation of the “buffoon candidate” liberal discourse during the 2016 US election campaign. Yet the focus on Trump’s antics—much like the obsessive mocking of his hair color, relative hand size, and bad taste—do nothing to help his opponents, or, worse, democracy.

Ask the many Italians who opposed Silvio Berlusconi for decades, and know well what it is like to live with a leader who is both embarrassing and dangerous—lacking good manners as well as respect for democratic institutions. They will remember well that while the press, politicians and comedians were busy making fun of  Berlusconi’s inappropriate jokes (tanned Obama, anyone?), his ill-fitting jackets and his less-than imposing appearance, he passed laws that brought the Italy economy to its knees but saved him from facing legal or financial consequences.

The price of the “victim in chief” narrative

The personal attacks fed a narrative of victimization Berlusconi was skillful in maneuvering to his advantage, playing the role of a “victim in chief”—one that Trump has comfortably embraced, too. His critics helped make him the focus of any political conversation, both Italy’s main leader and public target, and defined his legacy as that of a bizarre, laughable but ultimately benevolent man rather than the criminal he was. That’s why—at 81, with numerous trials under his belt and no shame about his misogynistic, racist inclinations—he is still able to influence the electoral cycle, and is gearing up for his latest comeback (as his coalition appears set to win in a regional election in Sicily).

The tendency to laugh at what scares us is profoundly human. Still it’s only a weapon when facing things that can’t be changed. In politics, and especially in times when freedom is under attack, the only effective weapon to apply is intelligent scrutiny. That means examining the presidency and Trump’s America with the seriousness they deserve—addressing policies and their effects, not the comical quirks of its leader.