It’s almost impossible for Japanese observers to follow a presidential election in the United States without feeling that they have a stake in the outcome – Japanese stability depends on American stability. The Japanese economy relies on U.S economic openness and its national defense relies on the alliance with the U.S. The upcoming election in November has drawn an especially pointed interest given the election of Donald Trump in 2016. One of the reasons his election was such as surprise to Japan (along with most everywhere else) was the assumption that the electoral system had to work, and that the dormant rationality of U.S. voters would finally understand that a Trump presidency was against their interests. Instead, they got a bracing example of the wild partisan swings that will continue to define U.S. politics, no matter who wins the election.
By conventional measures, Joe Biden is the easy favorite to win. Trump is an extremely weak incumbent and usual message of disruption may wear thin on a country that’s had more than its usual share and wishes for life to go back to something resembling normal. His mismanagement of the pandemic, the weak economy, and the ongoing protests have overshadowed his campaign’s hopes of running on a strong economy. Trump’s shock win in 2016 likely overestimated his strength as a candidate. It’s worth remembering that Trump’s 2016 win was extremely close. While most of the attention has focused on his narrow capture of former Democratic strongholds like Michigan and Wisconsin, if he had lost just one of states like Florida, Pennsylvania, or Virginia, Hillary Clinton would be president. Assuming that Trump picks up most of the same states that he did last time, if Biden can grab just one or two of those from him, Trump will be the first incumbent voted out of office in almost thirty years.
The question of which candidate would be best for Japan’s interests in terms of regional stability, economic expansion, and the multilateral system of alliances and commerce is much less complicated. The best short-term implication of a Trump defeat would be an end to the browbeating tariffs, obsession with trade deficits, and demands of more money for U.S. military bases in Japan. That’s not to say that if Biden wins that Japan can count on a U.S. return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership framework that it abandoned when Trump came into office, but there will be more opportunities for multilateral economic engagement that are closer to Japan’s preferences for stabilizing economic governance in the Asia-Pacific region.
Then again, there should be no assumption that conventional measures can predict the outcome of the election. Patterns of electoral fraud need to be included in any forecast about the election given their intent to depress turnout among likely Democrat voters. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it’s also possible to imagine a scenario where some states hold the election and others postpone, leading to a situation in which not all of the electoral votes are awarded or outcomes could become mired in court challenges or results delayed for weeks or longer. There is also justified concern that Trump will not accept defeat and may not even hold the election at all, using pretenses like pandemic lockdowns or charges of electoral manipulation or concerns about rioting to postpone voting.
There can be no assumption that conventional measures can predict the outcome of the election
There are reasons for both optimism and pessimism about whether the two-party electoral system could hold. The optimistic case is that current polls give Biden a clear chance of defeating Trump (better than Clinton’s odds at the same point in 2016) and the American public is becoming solidly opposed to Trump’s policies as the year progresses. The process to select a president contains plenty of chokepoints that Trump would need to clear if he wants to stay in office beyond his current mandate and any antiliberal moves on his part will be difficult to pull off if the vote is resoundingly against a second term. A decisive victory for Biden would make it difficult for Republicans to contest the result and would give them an opportunity to disown Trump, instead turning to obstructing Biden’s presidency (this partly explains why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is postponing COVID relief measures in order to push the issue onto Biden’s agenda) and attempting to poison the Democratic brand the Trump has poisoned that of the Republicans.
Maybe most importantly, the pushback from the Pentagon against Trump’s demand to use the U.S. military against protesters under the Insurgency Act is evidence there are lines that the military would hesitate to cross (though this hesitancy will continually be tested). This is important because if Trump were to refuse to leave the White House on January 20, 2021, the military and other agencies could simply refuse to follow his orders since he’s no longer president and commander in chief. As a former Secret Service agent put it, “He can sit in the Oval Office and put his hands together and say, ‘I’m not going to leave,’ but … the transfer of power will occur with him or without him.” The compliance of law enforcement agencies, many of whom now see themselves as responsible to Trump directly rather than to the broader judicial system, is a more difficult – and troubling – question.
The pessimistic argument is based on the set views that Trump hates to lose, his base supporters are primed to expect a conspiracy to remove him from office, and if the vote is close enough to create confusion then Republicans may be willing to play along with Trump’s grab at power in order to keep a Democrat out of the White House and secure another four years of judiciary appointments and economic deregulation. The 2000 Florida recount controversy is the obvious template, and similar concerns in the upcoming election about balloting and vote counting could lead to court challenges that may determine the outcome. Trump can also simply refuse to accept the validity of the results while right-wing militias that see him as the last great hope for their goals take increasingly assertive (and violent) steps to protect Trump’s position as president. Speculating beyond that point is almost impossible because it depends on the specific nature of the voting controversies and legal challenges, but both are within the realm of possibility. If the results are close and one or two states decide the outcome, then anything is possible.
As long as political polarization dictates what it’s possible, U.S. policy will grow more mercurial all the time
Even if Biden is successful in driving Trump out of the White House, there are limits to how much his presidency would be a return to “normal.” Much of his hypothetical presidency would be devoted to picking up the damage, not just in Asia, but all over the world and within the United States most especially. Domestically, congressional Republicans will probably see Biden’s administration as an opportunity to settle scores following Democratic-led investigations and impeachment and would thus make it difficult, if not impossible, for Biden to secure cabinet appointees or pass legislation. He could rely on executive orders and temporary “acting” appointees, but their remit is limited and easy for a potential successor to undo (after all, this was how Trump was able to so easily walk away from the Paris Agreement and nuclear deal with Iran). Trump’s supporters would also not disappear even if their hero leaves the White House and may even grow more aggressive with Trump out of office. Indeed, if Biden wins his most important task will not be the pandemic or economic recovery, but clearing law enforcement and government at large of anti-democratic elements such as members of white supremacist groups and travelers with the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Ambassador William Burns, former U.S. deputy secretary of state, put it best when he wrote “Policies lurch between parties, commitments expire at the end of each administration, institutions are politicized, and disagreements are tribal…in the past, a sense of common domestic purpose gave ballast to U.S. diplomacy; now its absence enfeebles it”. Put simply, as long as the two-party system is as entrenched as it is, as long as partisan polarization dictates political space for what’s achievable, then whatever could be called the political status quo in the United States will grow more mercurial all the time. Japan’s goals with the alliance will need to continue to brace.