The president behind the wheel of the DeLorean

In the sequel to Robert Zemeckis’ classic 1987 film Back to the Future, a violently bad-tempered retiree named Biff Tannen steals the iconic DeLorean car, having just realised what every cinemagoer of the era knew he would find out: that the car was really a two-for-one combo of flying machine and time machine. In the hands of its rightful owner, madcap scientist Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown, the DeLorean is an end in itself as well as a means to probe the mysteries of the human condition; in the hands of his teenage friend, Marty McFly, it’s an adrenaline rush and a chance to go on the ultimate road trip. Old man Biff, on the other hand, sees it as a money-spinner that can turn his life around by turning other people’s lives inside-out. Motoring back to the year 1955, he deposits a sports results almanac into the lap of his younger self, thereby putting the young Biff Tannen on a sure-fire path to everlasting fortune and megalomaniacal self-aggrandisement. Think Jay Gatsby but without the charm. The success of this enterprise results in a radically altered socio-economic trajectory, both for Biff himself and for the United States.

Last year, ‘Make America Great Again’ became a rallying cry that invited Americans to indulge in a sentimentalised form of time travelling of their own. Just as Old man Biff looked back on his life and didn’t like what he saw, so Republican nominee Donald Trump suggested that the country’s best years lay in the past. Unless, of course, voters put him in the driver’s seat.

Thomas F Wilson as Biff Tannen in Back to the Future II (1989)
Thomas F Wilson as Biff Tannen in Back to the Future II (1989)


Biff Tannen’s casino home
Biff Tannen’s casino home

As the campaign progressed and Trump’s misanthropy became evident to all and sundry, so his resemblance to Biff Tannen took on a resonance that became steadily harder to ignore until The Daily Beast tracked down American screenwriter Bob Gale and pressed him on the subject. Gale publicly confirmed that, as a matter of fact, the film character had indeed been loosely based on a certain foul-mouthed, self-centred, womanising real estate magnate whose idea of running for president, mooted two years prior to the first Back to the Future movie release, threw the scriptwriters’ creative imagination into dystopian overdrive. In those bygone days, Trump’s business nous had been sufficient on its own terms to grant him the status of a minor media personality. One after another, interviewers from Rona Barrett to Oprah Winfrey tried to draw him out on the prospect of a presidential bid, but Trump’s political mandate, such as it was, went no further than bellows of outrage at how America’s allies preyed upon its open market and freeloaded off the American military for their national defence. The litany of grievances didn’t change, but somehow his endlessly recycled answers discouraged nobody from recycling the same questions that had elicited them. In more ways than one, therefore, the ‘script’ that put him on the path to political power was prepared well in advance.

Cover of People 7 December 1987
Cover of People 7 December 1987

That Biff Tannen is now in charge of the US is proof positive of a kink in the fabric of our space-time continuum. Like a VHS tape that’s been played, replayed, and copied over, the ghosts of movies past linger in the background of the world Americans now inhabit. On the panoramic screen of the imagination, they see the human-sized form that the president is meant to embody, now intruded upon by a figure whose high-rise home at 721 Fifth Avenue bears a striking resemblance to the one at the fictional town of Hill Valley. Needless to say, the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee released videos that played upon the Trump-Tannen comparison in the lead-up to November 2016. ‘Mockumentary’-style videos are still available online. These now have the same ‘too little, too late’ quality as Doc’s professorial explanation to Marty regarding how Tannen’s theft of the DeLorean had inflicted a dystopia on their own futures. Americans were given ample opportunity to reflect upon the prospect of a Tannen presidency, it must be said. But whether one sees him as a plutocrat or kleptocrat or both, it was the ballot box – and the ballots that went into it – that gave him the keys to the White House. As simulacrum, President Tannen has now achieved full embodiment and a crude form of sentience, amply sufficient to instil compliance in the likes of Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney, Ben Carson, et. al. Only the Terminator has stood up to him.

On the subject of termination, a particular scene in Back to the Future II might be said to encapsulate the new president’s sense of national victimhood. As the film envisages it, by the year 2015 Japanese corporations will reign supreme in the United States, reshaping the work environment of American employees in ways that, if not exactly humiliating, are certainly humbling.

Michael J Fox as Marty McFly in Back to the Future II (1989)
Michael J Fox as Marty McFly in Back to the Future II (1989)

Throughout the 1980s, scenarios of Japanese supremacy were commonplace. Such was the financial heft and clout of Japan’s multinational corporations that the idea of Pax Americana giving way to Pax Nipponica had gained a real purchase on the American psyche. Nor was the link between Japan’s swashbuckling corporations and political assertiveness on the world stage wholly fanciful. Prominent among Japan’s uber patriots was Shintaro Ishihara, the future governor of Tokyo, whose 1989 co-authored essay ‘The Japan That Can Say No’ argued that Japan’s position as junior partner in its relationship with the US was no longer appropriate, given the American military’s reliance upon Japanese semiconductor exports. In the world of Back to the Future II, Marty’s spineless subservience to the big brother-esque entity on his living room wall is the personification of Ishihara’s premise, the outcome of which is a guttural life-destroying ‘termination’ (a resonant word if ever there was one) from the Japanese corporate payroll.

The extent to which American commentators gave credence to the most far-fetched scenarios of Japanese interference in their domestic affairs was hardly confined to a fringe minority. During a 1987 CNN interview with Larry King, a phone-in caller asked Trump whether the Japanese would dictate American policy in the future, given their evident interest in the US as an investment market. To this, Trump had a definite answer:

I believe it already is true to a large extent, and there’s no reason for it to be. […] A Japanese man bought seven [of my] apartments. He put them together. He’s building a twenty-one million dollar apartment. […] Plenty of money. I like them very much, but they laugh at us. They’re laughing at this country and the way this country is being managed.

In retrospect, one wonders how a man who lambasted the Japanese for intruding too far into the US property market even as he made a hefty mark-up in the process wasn’t called out by Larry King for barefaced hypocrisy. Too often, apparently, the mystique attached to the billionaire’s opinions gave them a gloss that, imbibed by the interviewer, resulted in the ‘glossing over’ of essential details. But even when the rules of critical journalism were suspended, Trump inadvertently betrayed a key tenet of his thinking that would resurface in 2016, namely that his wealth and business acumen afforded him a privileged view into the American economy that, fair or foul, allowed him to pronounce upon it in ways that others could not. Having parlayed his business record into economic know-how, Trump positioned himself as a people’s champion who was ready to take on the bogeymen of the day – meaning, in lieu of fence-jumpers and terrorists, Japan.

If Trump got away with these rhetorical sleights-of-hand, his position had built-in limits. By no stretch of the imagination, for example, could anyone think of him as personally affronted by the state of the US economy, even after a couple of bankruptcies in the early 1990s gave his business record a more chequered quality. He was simply too wealthy, or otherwise perceived as such. That being said, the fact that he had suffered no slight at the hands of the Japanese did not disentitle him to an opinion. Far from it, he appeared as – and styled himself as – the exception to the rule, which meant that his pronouncements fed into the hysteria almost by default. Besides which, the fearmongering that was his stock-in-trade was par for the course in popular culture such as the works of thriller novelists Tom Clancey, Michael Crichton, and Steven Schlossstein, each of whom cast the United States as a whole in the role of victim.

Of these, Michael Crichton is especially instructive. His 1992 novel Rising Sun serves as a distillation of the most widespread suspicions of the era, particularly as regards the ways in which Japanese companies sustained one-sided advantages over their American competitors; how American public service institutions were at the beck-and-call of Japanese expatriates; and how Washington politics had been corrupted by blackmailing, rank self-interest, and meddlesome foreigners to an all-but-irredeemable extent. Against this backdrop, Crichton interposes a redemptive figure in his character John Morton, a charismatic senator who is running for president on a political platform of economic protectionism and nationalism. The following excerpt encapsulates his outlook:

‘There are some who say that we are entering a new era of global business,’ he said. ‘They say it no longer matters where companies are located, or where things are made. That ideas of national economies are old-fashioned and out of date. To those people, I say – Japan doesn’t think so. Germany doesn’t think so. The most successful countries in the world today maintain strong national policies for energy conservation, for the control of imports, for promotion of exports. They nourish their industries, protecting them against unfair competition from abroad. Business and government work together to look after their own people and their jobs. And those countries are doing better than America, because those economic policies reflect the real world. Their policies work. Ours don’t. We do not live in an ideal world, and until we do, America had better face the truth. We had better build our own brand of hard-nosed economic nationalism. We had better take care of Americans. Because nobody else will.’

As Crichton’s story unfolds, Senator Morton becomes a martyr to his cause after he is implicated in a sexual tryst that had been partly orchestrated by the Japanese in order to gain influence over him. His presidential bid collapses and the story ends on a decidedly low note, with no prospect of any relief for America’s travails.

In all probability, Crichton’s character is a not-too-distant reflection of a 1987 sexual scandal that erupted around Democratic Senator Gary Hart, a presidential candidate who was widely considered to be among the most insightful, visionary, and charismatic politicians of his day. Hart’s story has been recently recalled in Matt Bai’s nonfiction book All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics went Tabloid (2014), a work that reminds us of how, incredible though it may seem, there was once a time when politics and celebrity culture were largely separable phenomena. Hart was not anti-Japanese, but the persona of Senator Morton, ruined by public scandal in an uncannily similar manner, was indubitably so.

In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, Germany’s politicians scanned an old interview with Donald Trump that was published in Playboy. They would have done better to read Crichton’s novel after watching Back to the Future II, for though it’s doubtful whether the president admires his doppelganger in the latter production it seems almost inconceivable that he never picked up a copy of Rising Sun, read the demise of Senator Morton, and thought to himself: ‘I won’t get caught with my pants down like that.’ In a series of extraordinarily barefaced gestures that only a reality TV star could pull off, he all but owned up to his philandering past before anyone else could point the finger. But if the pants were off, so to speak, the anti-Japanese sentiment wasn’t and one of the new president’s first acts was to walk away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that would have seen the US and Japan enter into a free trade agreement along with a host of other Pacific economies.

Behind the wheel of the DeLorean, Donald Trump has said no. That the era of Japan’s ‘bubble economy’ lies some thirty years behind us appears not to matter very much. But when you’re an apolitical, intertextual, time-travelling zombie from the past naturally it wouldn’t. So where do we go from here, my fellow passengers? To China, perhaps? At some point, even Trump must realise that Sinophobia has more traction than the crumbs of Japanophobia left over from days of yore. In all fairness, too, there appears to be widespread consensus that the win-win argument of ‘Made in China’ consumer imports compensating for lost manufacturing jobs that were outsourced from the US to the Middle Kingdom has been overstated. But it takes a Gary Hart to address this situation, not a Donald Trump. Fasten your seatbelt.


Image: crop from Back to the Future II poster

Daniel McKay

Daniel McKay teaches at Doshisha University, Japan.

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