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Trumpism With Chinese Characteristics 
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Trumpism With Chinese Characteristics 

The former president and the Xi regime both vacillate between disregarding the rules and demanding their protection.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and then-President Donald Trump attend a welcoming ceremony November 9, 2017, in Beijing, China. (Photo by Thomas Peter-Pool/Getty Images)

One of the ironies of contemporary politics is that Donald Trump offers himself as the champion of American interests against China when Donald Trump personifies the Chinese ethos. 

Consider the three most important parallels: 

  1. Both Trump and Beijing are, fundamentally, whiners. They complain endlessly about being singled out and treated—in Trump’s favorite words—“very unfairly,” as though fairness and fair play were consistent with their own values rather than perfectly opposed to them. 
  2. Both sanctimoniously claim the protection of laws, rules, and norms they hold in comprehensive contempt when they do not align with their own interests. Trump and his enablers complain that the case against the former president in New York was a legal stretch, but they simultaneously argue that Trump’s risible attempts to find some legal pretext for nullifying the 2020 presidential election are to be understood as an entirely legitimate effort to work through the system. Beijing is simultaneously the world’s most aggressive systematic violator of WTO rules and principles and the top complainer about violations of these rules that do not accord with its interests. 
  3. Both Beijing and Trump argue that economic success is an answer to all criticism. Trump’s argument for himself always has been, in essence, I’m very rich, so I must know what I am doing. That would make an equally compelling case for conferring the presidency upon Kim Kardashian or Taylor Swift—neither of whom has Trump’s history of serial bankruptcies and idiotic business mismanagement, as in the fiascos of The Plaza hotel in New York or the Trump Taj Mahal casino. China’s single-party police-state government achieved economic growth and a higher standard of living in basically the same way the Soviet Union did: the forcible conversion of a relatively low-yield agrarian economy into a relatively high-yield industrial one. It’s the “one cool trick” of backward, authoritarian countries, and it generally works—once. Deng Xiaoping chose a more auspicious moment for his country’s transformation than V.I. Lenin did: The years from the mid-1980s through the turn of the century constituted one of the most productive and innovative economic periods in human history, and while it would not be accurate to say that China made the most of them, China made a great deal of them. 

The error of post-Cold War liberalism regarding China was the notion that increased wealth, trade, and contact with liberal-democratic societies would bring about political reform in China as a newly affluent Chinese bourgeoisie interested in protecting its property rights began to demand political power to fortify their fragile prosperity. It wasn’t a preposterous notion, but it was mistaken. 

The error of Republican post-liberalism was the notion that Trump could be integrated into the mainstream of conservative politics, that he would be surrounded by good people who could focus his energy and his bottomless rage into productive policy goals. Today, most of the good people who served the Trump administration spend their days trying to sanctify the attempted coup d’état of 2021 and pretending that evangelical America’s favorite game-show host didn’t pay hush money to cover up his adultery with a gamey pornographic performer. In the cases of both Trump and China, the optimists underestimated the corrupting influence of access to power and how cheaply so many leading figures of the ruling class can be bought with a few economic privileges or a happy sinecure—and, more to the point, how powerful a weapon is the threat of losing those privileges and sinecures. 

China tests the “rules-based order” at the geopolitical level, while Donald Trump tests the rule of law and civic norms at home on the national level. In both cases, the constant vacillation between disregarding the rules and demanding their protection is not so much a mark of hypocrisy as it is the display of two faces of the same underlying contempt for those rules, the conviction that rules are fundamentally for suckers. It is not for nothing that Trump has expressed admiration for Beijing’s brutal suppression of the Tiananmen Square movement and its libertarian demands or that even while insisting on his own innocence he prefers the company of habitual criminals such as corrupt former NYPD Commissioner Bernie Kerik (a former felon whose record is today clean thanks to a Trump pardon) and former Hells Angels leader Chuck Zito. Trump’s own links to organized-crime figures over the years speak as much to longing—the weak man’s perverse attraction to the strong man—as they do to ordinary opportunism.

The constant vacillation between disregarding the rules and demanding their protection is not so much a mark of hypocrisy as it is the display of two faces of the same underlying contempt for those rules, the conviction that rules are fundamentally for suckers.

Adolf Hitler once boasted that the strength of totalitarian systems is that they force their enemies to imitate them. And he was not entirely wrong about that, as attested to the regimentation and illiberalism of America at war under Franklin Roosevelt, champion of progressive democracy and builder of concentration camps. Trump would have the United States imitate Chinese economic policy when it comes to trade, cartelization, and industrial subsidies. He would have the United States imitate Russia, China, or even North Korea with a foreign policy based on blackmail and extortion and subordinate to personal political (and economic) calculation. 

And, for their part, too many Trump opponents, too many would-be liberals and rule-of-law advocates, left and right, would (and do) imitate Trump when it comes to dealing with the threat he poses to our constitutional order: working from apocalyptic presumptions and ends-justify-the-means parameters. One might reasonably wonder whether anybody really has confidence in the American way of doing things anymore, or at least sufficient confidence to let the American way work through these challenges, digesting them in its usual messy, incompletely, and unsatisfying way.

The American way is unsatisfying because it is conservative, prioritizing procedure over outcomes. But if you won’t have the American way, then make your peace with Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping—they are variations on a theme, and we’ve all heard the tune before

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.