In an age in which western politics has become increasingly fanatical and ideological, it is refreshing to listen to interviews of Donald Trump from a time before he was President in order to remember that Trump was and as much as is possible still is ideologically agnostic. During his long career as a celebrity and businessman, Trump’s interviews conveyed a man who was a problem solver rather than a lazy career politician, let alone a rambunctious ideologue.
Then of course he finally campaigned for the presidency and won. During the course of that election he had to pick a party and stick with it. Beyond having to pick a party political side, due to the uniquely vicious nature of his opponent, Trump had to (and succeeded) in making more memorable verbal attacks on Hillary Clinton than her much more handsomely financed campaign could land on him.
Although the Trump White House unambiguously uses tariffs and sanctions as a means of manipulating the global world order, it would be wrong to think of these practices (incorrect though they may be) as symptoms of Donald Trump’s alleged personal malice. Far from hating the rest of the world and viewing America is inherently superior to others, Trump perhaps ironically takes the opposite view.
While George H.W. Bush presided over a late 1980s/early 1990s America whose severe economic challenges he could not cope with, he nevertheless arrogantly acted as though America’s newly found hegemonic status was never going to change. During that same H.W. Bush era, Trump was a popular interviewee on American television and during such interviews he consistently warned that America’s economic and therefore geopolitical strength was declining. A familiar refrain for Trump was that other countries had their act together in a much more convincing way than did his own.
Specially, a Trump interview from 1990 has recently been making at least minor waves in the western media. In the interview, Trump characterised Beijing’s June the 4th incident in a manner that perhaps interestingly would offend some Chinese and almost all western liberals and neocons. Notably, within this statement, Trump praised China’s strength as a state and conveyed an undeniable respect for the fact that the Chinese model of governance was strengthening at the dawn of the 1990s whilst America’s was declining.
In more recent years, Trump has spoken of his respect for China and even tipped his proverbial hat to Beijing for “screwing us” in trade. Crucially, Trump never blamed China for allegedly “taking advantage of us”. Instead Trump blamed incompetent politicians and negotiators from his own side. Trump clearly respects success and China’s success is no exception.
Moreover, the campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” self-evidently implies that Trump believes that after decades of misrule, his country is no longer great or at least no longer as great as it once was. At the same time, Trump has long recognised the growing greatness in countries like China, even dating back to a time when most American protectionists were uniformly obsessed with Japan.
This does not make Trump an expert in Xi Jinping Thought or Deng Xiaoping Theory and it certainly does not make him un-American. What it does make Trump is a political hyper-realist who even when reaching the wrong conclusions does so for reasons that few could disagree with or be offended by: he wants his country to improve and he is upset that his country’s prestige has suffered over the years.
There is no doubt that China is being uniquely scapegoated in the trade war as part of the plan to “Make America Great Again” but since technically speaking, both sides still want to continue trade talks (in spite of a month of supreme tensions), both sides ought to psychologically begin speaking in a proverbial language familiar to the other side.
For the United States, negotiators should understand that after a century of humiliation, Chinese politicians and the Chinese people are correctly proud of making their ancient civilisation great again. If Trump could acknowledge China’s strength as early as 1990, surely, American negotiators ought to be more open about acknowledge that China is a great civilisation, a great nation and a powerful modern state. As such, China and the US should view each other as equal partners as the leading economies of the 21st century.
In respect of the Chinese side, it is important for Chinese negotiators to stay true to their roots as a rational nation guided by a deeply ethical philosophy. It would be counter-productive for China to start speaking the language of Iran which oddly combines the fire and fury of an indignant country with the lexicon of western liberal so-called “social justice warriors”.
Trump does not hate China and is certainly not racist against Chinese. Trump merely loves his own country and is using every unilateral trick in the book in an attempt to restore a greatness that in the 1980s was threatened (in Trump’s own words) not by China but by Japan.
Thus, both sides ought to realise that appearances can be deceiving and so too can misinterpretations of rhetoric. There is no doubt that the trade war is a lose-lose situation, but the sooner both sides can express the respect that they genuinely have for one another (even if at times this becomes grudging respect), the better it can be.
At present there is a risk that Americans will grow not to respect China’s strength as Trump still does, but instead to hate China in the way that many if not most Americans hate Iran. Likewise, there is a growing feeling of hitherto absent anti-Americanism growing in China for obvious enough reasons.
As the two leading countries of the modern world, China and the US owe it to themselves and the rest of the world to prioritise cooperation. The first step in this long process is understanding that the other side is great in its differences but that these differences can be a foundation of a respectful relationship in a new era. Thus, China and the US can and should work together to make global civilisation great again.