Cultural Caviar

Way to Go, Yamamoto

November 10, 2016

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Way to Go, Yamamoto

On the list of unenviable situations faced by weekly columnists, No. 1 would have to be the dreaded ill-timed deadline. I’ll be writing this the day before the presidential election, for it to run the day after. By the time you read this, you’ll know the outcome quite well, whereas I’m completely in the dark as I write. A wise man would take this opportunity to make a bold prediction, knowing there’s a 50/50 chance of looking like quite the smarty-pants. But I am, as always, unwise. So no predictions here.

Instead of looking ahead, I think I’ll take a look back—75 years back, to be specific. As Trump supporters gear up for their big day, I am reminded of one of the great figures of World War II, a man not as widely remembered as some of the more flamboyant Axis leaders, but a man whose influence on the war cannot be overstated: Isoroku Yamamoto, commander-in-chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, and the mastermind, and advocate, of the Pearl Harbor attack. Yamamoto was a man who took a major (I’m tempted to say “yuge”) gamble for his country. He did it in the face of not only the odds, but common sense itself.

Yamamoto was hardly ignorant of the American character. He’d lived here. He’d attended school here. He was seen at the time as the Japanese military leader most able to understand this country. Yet he honestly believed that the Pearl Harbor attack would destroy the morale of the American people, cow them, frighten them away from military engagement in the Pacific, and strengthen the antiwar sentiment that existed prior to December 1941. He was not a stupid man, not at all. And he knew quite well that a prolonged war with the U.S. was something the Japanese nation could not survive. That’s why he favored—indeed, pushed for—a short, sharp blow that would short-circuit the prospect of a prolonged war by taking the U.S. out of the game. It wasn’t that he misunderstood our strength. What he got wrong, terribly, tragically wrong, was our character…even though that was something he should have comprehended from his time here, and from his knowledge of U.S. history.

“A President Trump will be neither the hero his supporters take him for nor the villain his detractors assume he is.”

Yamamoto’s plan would eventually lead to the death of millions of his countrymen and the end of Imperial Japan as an entity. Perhaps worse than that, many modern historians have come to understand that Yamamoto allowed himself to be played by FDR. Roosevelt needed a Pearl Harbor to motivate the American public, and to provide a “back door” to military involvement in Europe. Poor Yammy got played like a tonkori. Pearl Harbor was the greatest gift he could have given the hawks in the U.S.

But on the other hand, what if he’d been right? What if his plan had worked, and the U.S. had decided that war in the Pacific was an unwise countermove? Well, of course, Yamamoto would have become the greatest hero Japan had ever known, and maybe even, in time, he might have been recognized by historians in the U.S. as a wise strategist whose blitz tactics had prevented a costly, long-term war. Because that’s the thing with those types of risks: You take them because of the potential of a great payoff if you win. Yamamoto lost, and that’s all that history will record. But one can’t help but think that in the hours following news of the attack’s success, he must have had at least some optimism that the operation would indeed lead to the outcome he sought. Time would soon wipe any smile from his inscrutable face, but I wonder exactly how much time it took before he realized he’d, um, what’s Japanese for “fucked up”?

So here’s why I bring this up. The Trump people have taken a massive risk. I would go so far as to say it’s an unprecedented risk. They’ve rammed through a candidate whose chances of victory defy the odds and, indeed, common sense itself. Trump is vulgar, unpredictable, impulsive, and rude, and he reeks of instability (and please don’t argue that last point; Trumpers have bragged endlessly about the fact that he’s fighting against the “establishment,” and—to the average voter—the establishment, hated though it may be, nevertheless represents stability). These are all elements that are supposed to spell certain death for a candidate running for national office in the U.S.

There are certain things that have nothing to do with policy or ideology, yet can still sink any politician, even a Democrat. From Howard Dean’s “scream” (“look out, he’s unstable”), to Pat Schroeder and Ed Muskie’s tears, to Thomas Eagleton’s “shock therapy” and Mike Dukakis’ “psychiatric issues,” to Gary Hart’s womanizing and Anthony Wiener’s sexting (the initial incident that occurred when he was a congressman, not the later, underage stuff), these are the types of issues that can weaken a candidate or ticket. You don’t have to like the fact that character issues so often take precedence over matters of policy or competence, but you do have to accept that it’s a reality. Yes, character issues matter; good or bad, for better or worse, it’s a simple truth.

So now we have the Trumpers, who have given us an arrogant billionaire playboy and reality TV star with a very questionable character. Anyone with even a modicum of common sense should have known there’d be salacious skeletons in that closet, perhaps an extramarital affair, or (as it turned out) open-mic comments about pussy-grabbing and multiple accusations (false though some certainly were) of gropery. Going by electoral precedent, Trump shouldn’t win. That he’s even close in the polls can be written off as stemming from the fact that the Democrats have run a uniquely execrable candidate, a person it’s damn near impossible to like, even for many liberals. But being close doesn’t count for shit when the winner is declared. Gore came close. Big deal. He lost, and that’s all that mattered.

I see Trump supporters as American Yamamotos. They have a plan that flies in the face of precedent and common sense. If they prevail, it will be glorious from the standpoint of: It’s always a positive thing for any nation or society when received wisdom is proven wrong. That’s the kind of rug-pull that keeps people properly skeptical of the “experts,” and that’s good. If their man wins, the Trumpers will have rewritten the textbooks; no discussion of the American electorate will ever again be complete without examining how Trump defied expectations and put the lie to what so many people had previously accepted as “the way things are.”

Again, that’s a plus. Putting aside Trump as a man and as a candidate, the upending of the norm would be good. In fact, it would be great.

But a defeat? Well, that would be most un-great. We’ll get a Hillary presidency, a Supreme Court made up of people who’ll make Sotomayor look like a centrist, and a GOP that will never again take a risk on something raw and “unsafe.” If Trump loses, his supporters—especially the longtime activist Republicans in the primary who backed his unorthodox, take-no-prisoners campaign of funny faces and insult humor—will be seen as the ultimate Yamamotos. They’ll be condemned because they “should have known better.” Hadn’t they paid attention to how American elections usually play out? Did they learn nothing from Akin and Mourdock in 2012 regarding the power of “women’s issues” in swing states? Had it not occurred to them that ramming through a guy with an unending supply of “women’s issues” would be exactly what Clinton would need to allow her to deflect from her own crappiness?