April 28, 2020
It’s now clear that in November Trump will be running against — China.
Republicans are in a panic that Trump’s ghastly Covid-19 performance means he won’t be re-elected. (Not seeing it means he shouldn’t be re-elected.) So now, his last-ditch campaign plan is targeting China as the enemy, and Biden as “soft on China.” Recycling some ancient anodyne Biden quotes welcoming China’s integration into the global community.
Reality has never figured much in Trump’s shtick. But painting himself as our avenger against China is particularly preposterous. As for quotes, plenty of his own kiss the feet of China’s ruler. His idiotic trade war hurt America’s economy and consumers more than China. Covid-19 began in China, but Trump’s incompetence was what made it catastrophic here.
Soft on China? His first day, Trump torpedoed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal among 11 nations the Obama Administration painstakingly negotiated, to combat China’s regional dominance.
Trump’s action handed China a giant geopolitical triumph. Its newly empowered rulers couldn’t believe their luck.
Though I doubt Biden will highlight this, the words “trade deal” having alas become myopically toxic for many Democrats as well as Republicans.
Even if you favor toughness toward China, it’s a complex problem, and Trump just lashes out erratically and ignorantly. The proverbial bull in a China shop.
And for him to run a China-bashing campaign will be especially bizarre since China will likely work with Russia to help him win. Because they know how bad he is for America, undermining the U.S. as an adversary.
Trump’s Covid-19 disaster vindicates their judgment. Initially the virus gave China a black eye, but America’s is worse. Now China crows that it’s proven how great their system is and how America’s is weak and dysfunctional. Trump’s vileness had already battered our global standing. Covid-19 makes people everywhere lose yet more confidence in, and admiration for, America. A recent global poll showed China is now preferred over the U.S. as a world leader.
That is truly chilling.
Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes recently authored The Light that Failed. Referring to the idea (epitomized by Fukuyama’s The End of History) of liberal democracy as a blueprint for the flourishing of human values. Now being beaten back, the new book argues, by populist onslaughts fueled by a nationalism that actually sees liberal democracy (often demonized with the term “neoliberalism”) as some kind of alien implant.
Nowhere is this more true than in China. Optimists had once envisioned a richer China, more globally integrated, becoming a better and more benign China. But its regime, through fierce propaganda and mind control, has succeeded in turning the population’s psychology against “Western” liberal humanistic values, and toward truculent nationalistic chest-pounding.
A recent column in The Economist tells of “Fang Fang,” whose candid blogging about being quarantined in Wuhan gained a huge adoring following. Fang Fang criticized the government for its cover-ups and missteps. Then her writings were translated and published in the West. China’s netizens turned on a dime, now vilifying her en masse as a traitor, assailing her right to be heard at all. Dissension within the family might be okay — but not giving China’s foreign critics ammunition.
So saturated with nationalism have Chinese minds become that, far from coveting human rights, they enthusiastically embrace a regime that crushes them. The Chinese, the columnist drily concludes, actually “are demanding less freedom of speech . . . an autocrat’s dream.”
Trump wants to posture as tough on China. Yet never whispers a word against the Orwellian tyranny his great friend Xi Jinping is building.
And this is why it’s chilling that world opinion now prefers Chinese over American leadership. This is the kind of pathology that is prevailing nowadays over ideals of liberal democracy.
I am hoping that Trump’s November defeat can break the spell and be a catalyst toward restoring sanity. Outside China at least.