President Trump’s Historical Consciousness: Bowling Ball Edition

President Trump, at a recent event, recycled an old chestnut I haven’t heard in years

He accused Japan of using gimmicks to deny U.S. auto companies access to their consumers, …
“It’s the bowling ball test. They take a bowling ball from 20 feet up in the air and drop it on the hood of the car,” Trump said of Japan. “If the hood dents, the car doesn’t qualify. It’s horrible,” he said. It was unclear what he was talking about.

Apparently the reporter didn’t live through the 1980s, because it’s precisely the kind of urban legend that flourished in the heyday of the trade wars.

It’s true that Japan did invoke standards to limit American market penetration – “non-tariff barriers” was a term we heard a lot in the 1980s – but more often than not the problem was more informal barriers: consumer tastes (or biases; there’s a subtle difference between Japanese shopping preferences for uniform and unblemished fruit, say, and Japanese myths about local rice being both superior or about Japanese not buying American meat due to biological differences), closed distributor systems, and incompatibility with local needs. Cars, for example: in addition to weak consumer demand and the complexities of distribution and marketing, US producers never seemed interested in modifying its vehicles for the literally left-side-of-the-road Japanese system.

Then there’s areas where Japanese products were just better than anything produced in the US: cameras, especially digital ones; cell phones (in the 1990s, anyway); kitchen appliances (where US brands also focused on bigger, which was a terrible match to small Japanese kitchens, and the most important ones – rice pots and hot water kettles – weren’t made in America at all).

Apparently Trump went on to complain about Japanese car manufacturers not doing enough in the US, which hasn’t been remotely true since the late 1980s.

I have a theory about President Trump: I don’t think he’s changed his mind about anything, or perhaps even learned anything, since the 1980s. It’s an interesting example of how someone’s consciousness of the world gets fixed at a certain time and everything else gets filtered through that body of knowledge (or “knowledge”) from that point forward. Doesn’t happen to everybody about everything, perhaps, but it’s remarkable how on many social and economic issues Trump harkens back to 1980s tropes and images. His depiction of urban blight, especially of gangs, are classic 1970s-1980s issues, thoroughly covered in the media and entertainment of the day. (and his view of guns and police seems to owe a lot to the “Death Wish” and “Dirty Harry” franchises) His use of “cyber” for online technologies had its peak in 2000, though it was eclipsed by “internet” in the mid-1990s. His view of trade as bilateral relationships (in which deficits and surpluses matter a lot) is decidedly pre-WTO (possibly pre-GATT, but trade wars definitely were a thing in the 1980s). He uses other outdated language, e.g.. His view of how the economy can and should function marks manufacturing as the height of productivity and profitability, and still takes autarkic independence (in energy and, now, steel) as a high priority.

Obviously, President Trump hasn’t literally learned nothing since the 1980s – his facility with twitter and reality TV mark him as a 21st century figure – but on fundamental issues of how the world works and what the critical issues are, it’s not clear to me that anything that’s happened in the last quarter-century has made much of an impression on him.

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