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What Yoon Suk-yeol can learn from Trump's presidency

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By Troy Stangarone

When Yoon Suk-yeol is sworn in on May 10, he will assume the presidency with little political experience. In many cases, his advisers will certainly give him good advice, but as he prepares to take office, President-elect Yoon should take a moment to consider what he can learn from Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States.

Any comparison to Trump has the potential to be fraught. He is a highly divisive figure whose supporters can often see no wrong and opponents can often see no right. But from a more objective standpoint, there are potential lessons.

While Yoon and Trump come from different backgrounds, they share certain commonalities. Neither held elective office before ascending to the presidency and both will likely enter office as the least popular president-elects for their respective countries in modern times.

There are differences between Yoon and Trump’s situations, but the similarities suggest that Yoon may be able to draw lessons from Trump’s experience.

When Trump first announced his candidacy in June of 2015, he was not the dominant figure of the Republican Party that he is today. He won the primary election against the wishes of the Republican establishment and the general election against a high profile Democrat in Hillary Clinton. In essence, Trump did not owe his victory to anyone.

The independence of that victory and Trump’s status as an outsider gave him a political advantage that perhaps no president-elect in modern U.S. history had. Unbeholden to anyone, Trump could have taken the approach of supporting the best idea ― Republican, Independent, or Democrat ― rather than doubling down on the party elites’ view of what the Republican base wanted.

However, with Democrats largely inclined to be against him, and specifically his immigration policies, Trump hugged tighter to his core supporters. The need to run for re-election in four years, something Yoon does not face, also pushed Trump to move closer to Republican orthodoxy when he was not pursuing his long-held skepticism of U.S. allies, immigration, and trade that served as the basis of his “America First” policies, which were extremely popular with the Republican base.

Trump’s decision to hue closely to his base, however, only limited his opportunities to build broader support for his policies and accelerated the political polarization that had been growing in the United States.

While political polarization is rising in Korea, Yoon may have more space here. The Korean public is less tied to political parties than the public in the United States. Data analyzed by University of California-San Diego political scientist Stephan Haggard also suggests that it is the party faithful that is becoming more polarized, not the Korean public. The majority of the populace holds moderate political views. This could give Yoon more opportunities than Trump to appeal to non-core supporters and avoid deepening political polarization.

There is also a more practical reason why Yoon should work to avoid political polarization. When Trump came to office, Republicans controlled both Houses of Congress making bi-partisanship a luxury that Trump did not need. Yoon, in contrast, will need to build a working relationship with the Democratic Party of Korea, which controls the National Assembly.

This will be important if he wants to achieve lasting political change, which requires bipartisanship and public acceptance. On trade policy, the Biden administration has largely hued to Trump’s instincts. In this area, a significant portion of the Democratic Party was already skeptical of trade, along with union voters in key swing states. This made a return to a free trade orientation more difficult for the Biden administration. However, on many policies from immigration to climate change the Biden administration has sought to reverse Trump’s policies, much as Trump worked to reverse policies put in place by Barack Obama.

A final insight from the Trump presidency is that party elites and party voters may not share the same views on issues. Trump found that his voters ― Republican voters ― often did not care about the issues that the party elite cared about. Since Ronald Regan, Republicans have campaigned on limited government and low taxes, especially for the wealthy. What Trump’s election revealed is that most of the Republican base supported big government programs ― like Social Security and Medicare ― that Republicans have long tried to cut or eliminate and that they would be perfectly happy to pay for them with higher taxes on the wealthy.

It can be useful to engage elites, but their agenda may not actually be the agenda of voters. Korea, of course, has its own unique politics and issues that will affect how one learns from Trump’s experience, but as a president with little political experience thinking deeper about how Trump approached the U.S. presidency could help Yoon improve his own.
Troy Stangarone (ts@keia.org) is the senior director of congressional affairs and trade at the Korea Economic Institute.