The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

So, uh, what’s this bowling-ball test that Trump was talking about?

President Trump walks from Marine One to board Air Force One at Los Angeles International Airport on March 14. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

This post has been updated.

There is a group of people who are convinced that they have seen a movie called “Shazaam,” starring the comedian Sinbad. In the film, Sinbad plays a genie, doing the sorts of things that genies do.

It’s hard to say what exactly happens in the movie, because the movie doesn’t exist. As I said, there are people who say it does and who also say they’ve seen it. But they haven’t. Maybe they’ve seen “Kazaam,” a movie starring Shaquille O’Neal doing genie things, but there’s no “Shazaam.”

People misremember things. They have a sense that something happened, and they append details in the way a bird builds a nest: pieces from here and there that fit together. So a Shaq genie movie becomes a Sinbad genie movie and people wonder why it isn’t on Netflix.

Perhaps this helps explain President Trump’s odd comments at a fundraiser in Missouri on Wednesday.

Trump was talking about how Japan kept American automakers out of its market, explaining one of the mechanisms that was used.

We send a car to Japan, they analyze it for four weeks before they decide to send it back because it’s not environmentally friendly. … One of the car companies actually had a car made and it was the most environmentally perfect car, cost them a fortune. They spent a fortune. … But they wanted to see if they could get it in [to Japan]. And it, they were going crazy. Four days went by. Then five days. And they were ready to approve it and they said, no, no, we have to do one more test. It’s called the bowling-ball test, do you know what that is? That’s where they take a bowling ball from 20 feet up in the air and they drop it on the hood of the car. And if the hood dents, then the car doesn’t qualify. Well, guess what, the roof dented a little bit, and they said, nope, this car doesn’t qualify. It’s horrible, the way we’re treated. It’s horrible.

In The Washington Post’s report on Trump’s speech, reporters Josh Dawsey, Damian Paletta and Erica Werner followed that anecdote with a curt assessment: “It was unclear what he was talking about.” Which is a fair statement.

Trump appears to be claiming that, as a last resort to ban imports, American cars are forced to pass an unpassable test. A heavy weight is dropped on a car from some height, and, if the weight dents it, the car is not approved for import. Think of it like a poll test: The goal is to exclude participants, not to conduct a fair evaluation.

An effort to determine what “environmentally perfect” car Trump was describing was unsuccessful. But several people intimately familiar with the Japanese import system indicated in interviews that they had never heard of Trump’s bowling-ball test.

In 1995, then-President Bill Clinton announced a plan to add a tariff to Japanese luxury cars entering the United States in an effort to counterbalance the trade deficit with that country. The proposal was announced by Mickey Kantor, Clinton’s trade representative, who stated that “the U.S. is not going to stand by and watch its workers and its products unfairly treated.”

Reached by email Thursday morning, Kantor indicated that he had “no recollection” of any test of the sort mentioned by Trump.

We also contacted John Felice, now a managing partner at MotorMindz, a group that pushes for innovation in car manufacturing. Before joining MotorMindz, Felice was a vice president at Ford who worked for the company’s Asia division.

“It doesn’t resonate with me, that specific test,” Felice said by phone. He noted, though, without singling out Japan, that “a lot of countries have their own unique regulatory issues which can be a challenge for any automaker.” Tests for how bright headlights should be, things like that. While he hadn’t been at Ford for 10 years or so, he said, the bowling-ball test didn’t ring a bell.

In the consistently ungenerous swamps of social media, theories about the bowling-ball test centered on a vague idea that there had once been an ad that involved dropping a bowling ball on a car. Maybe this Nissan ad somehow got Shazaam’d into a political talking point?

Some people speculated that perhaps he was conflating mattress ads involving bowling balls with car ads doing the same. Others speculated that Trump had somehow attributed to the Japanese government a David Letterman sketch.

As a shot in the dark, I rented the unabashedly Nippophobic 1986 movie “Gung Ho,” starring Michael Keaton. In it, Keaton negotiates a deal with a Japanese manufacturer to reopen a shuttered car plant in a fictional Pennsylvania town. At no point during the movie are bowling balls involved. (To be fair, I fast-forwarded through it.) In “Rising Sun” — a 1993 movie that’s almost literally what you would get if Michael Crichton had written “Gung Ho” — there is a scene in which garbage is thrown on a windshield, but no bowling balls.

We will at this point note that it’s possible there was a last-ditch effort by Japanese authorities to keep some specific American car out of the country that some auto manufacturer conveyed to Trump. Efforts to contact Japanese representatives about the complaint were unsuccessful before publishing, but when the Trump administration filed a trade complaint over the automobile market last year, Japan responded by saying that it imposes no “non-tariff barriers” to entry to its market — meaning no weird tests that are impossible to pass.

One reason American cars aren’t common in Japan has nothing to do with protectionist practices. The Japanese dealership system is much more generous than ours, the Atlantic reported in November, and it would require a significant investment from American manufacturers to build to scale.

Update: There is a test that is conducted by the Japanese government that involves testing car hoods, as someone brought to our attention. In the test, a head-shaped object is fired at a car hood at about 20 mph to determine the effects if a car strikes a pedestrian. The head-like objects come in both adult and child sizes.

In essence, the test is meant to evaluate how much damage would be done to the head — not the car — by a collision. It’s not clear whether this is Trump’s bowling-ball test.

Of course, Trump also has something of a track record of telling stories in which details are misremembered, exaggerated or misrepresented. (There are also stories in which the entire conceit has proved false.) It’s entirely possible that someone told him about a protectionist test undertaken by a foreign government aimed at excluding certain products from markets and that anecdote became this story about bowling balls being dropped on Chevy Cruzes at the docks in Nagoya.

Or maybe there was a movie in which Sinbad played a guy trying to save an auto plant in the Rust Belt, figuring out how to keep car hoods from being dented by Japan’s infamous bowling-ball test.

I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this movie.

Update: Press Secretary Sarah Sanders says it was a joke.