Donald Trump has dumped all his macho stump rhetoric about China and morphed into a wimp. Since he probably never believed what he spouted in 2016, and it was all just performance art, his 2017 obsequity on Chinese soil is surely a shock to absolutely nobody.
Lest we forget, Trump has been in Asia this week while the Republicans back home have been busy sifting the ashes of the 2017 elections and gauging the weight of his political baggage. The best way to assess his overseas performance is to behold his Chinese flip-flop, because it illustrates anew that this guy believes in nothing beyond whatever he can muster for cheap thrills.
As a candidate, one of his cheapest thrills — which titillated his acolytes because he sounded so tough – was his rhetorical evisceration of China. (Alec Baldwin mimicked it beautifully, drawing out Trump’s pejorative pronunciation of “Jjjjyyna.”) According to Trump on the stump, China was “ripping us off” on trade. He said, “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing.” China, the rapist nation, was our “economic enemy, because they have taken advantage of us like nobody in history.” China tries to “lie, cheat, and steal” and engineer “the greatest theft in the history of the world.”
But it’s a whole different story now that he’s face to face with Chinese leaders in Beijing. Big surprise, the bully caved.
All of a sudden, China is not an enemy rapist that has lied and cheated its way to an advantageous trade imbalance that has actually grown since Trump took office. This week, he declared: “I don’t blame China. After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country to the benefit of its citizens? I give China great credit.”
So much for his promise of “America First.” But will members of his 35 percent constituency view his flip-flop as a betrayal of his get-tough rhetoric? Doubtful. Very few Trumpkins are likely to remember what he said a year ago or will bother to contrast it with what he says now, especially in the foreign policy realm. As always, an oblivious fan base is his friend.
Nor will they care about his latest insult to American First Amendment values. Fine. The rest of us do care.
It has been a tradition, since the Bill Clinton era, that when a president travels to China and holds a joint press conference, the press gets to ask questions. President Obama’s press secretary told Chinese leaders that Obama wouldn’t show up unless there was Q&A, and the Chinese backed down.
But not this time, folks. This time, the Chinese leaders insisted as always that the press should sit silent. And the current president, who’s no fan of press freedom anyway, promptly went belly up. In the words of mouthpiece Sarah Huckabee Sanders, “It was at the Chinese insistence there were no questions today.”
Imagine what Republicans (and reality star Trump) would’ve said if Obama had ever bowed to “Chinese insistence.” But bellicose talk and belly-up behavior has typified much of Trump’s first year. Yes, his authoritarian impulses and self-dealings have damaged our democracy. But as evidenced by the Chinese episode, and as a perceptive Canadian political analyst points out, “He talks like a strongman. He is, in practice, a weak man.”
And for that, ironically, we should breathe a measure of relief.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania.