Congratulations, America! Last night Trump declared victory in his trade war with Mexico. In a Tweet, of course, he explained that the US had a “signed agreement,” allowing him to magnanimously “suspend” tariffs that would have sent our own economy reeling. Once again, his Blazing Saddles gun-to-my-own-head routine was a stunning success.
What did Dear Leader win for our country and its Great Patriot Farmers? Nothing. Go ahead and read the signed agreement and find a meaningful, enforceable thing Mexico will deliver that wasn’t happening already. Trump went on to tell a flat out lie, claiming that Mexico will step up purchases of farm produce. In return for Trump’s glorious achievements, the rubes will lay down their bodies for him while their farms go broke.
One more time, Trump has manufactured a crisis then secured victory by arbitrarily declaring that crisis over. This Great Wall of Bullshit approach to international relations has been remarkably successful so far, at least politically. The President provoked in a crisis in 2018 by declaring he would withdraw from NAFTA. Negotiators from Canada and Mexico then discovered the ruse – all they had to do was play along. After a few months of sophomoric “negotiations” officials revealed New NAFTA, whose biggest revision was its name.
Leaders around the world have learned how to play this administration. Ignore Trump’s bluster. Pay for rooms at his hotel while feeding cash through his family’s money laundering business. Eventually Trump will give you whatever you want as long as you let him pretend to defeat you in a WrestleMania victory lap on social media. This model works for anything. Want to defeat a pro-democracy insurgency after gassing your own people? No problem. Want permission to quietly continue your nuclear missile program? Go for it. Looking to arm radical jihadi terrorists with the most sophisticated bomb technology on the planet? Salaam-Alaikum, brother. Keep dropping coins in the juke box and you can dance all night.
While kleptocrats from North Korea to Israel cash in at the Trump diplomatic casino, pink doughy “real Americans” in golf shirts learn from Fox News that Trump has cowed the North Koreans and built a monumental wall against the heathen masses from the Mexican countries. It doesn’t take much energy to fool people begging to be deceived.
There is, however, one troubling hold-out. The Chinese have thus far refused to play. They seem to have a very different strategy in mind, seeing an opportunity in Trump to score a much more potent and lasting victory against their greatest rival.
We got an early preview of China’s unique Trump strategy immediately after the inauguration. The Kushner Family was on the cusp of completing a massive money laundering operation involving the failed 666 Park Avenue Tower in New York, thanks to a cash infusion from Chinese insurance giant, Anbang. At the last minute, to the apparent surprise of Anbang’s senior management, Chinese officials torpedoed the deal. China’s move sent the Kushner companies into crisis. Desperate for cash thanks to the Chinese rebuke, the Kushner crime family scrambled to pressure someone into financing their rescue. Their desperate international beg and threaten road-show almost triggered a war among the Gulf States.
When Trump later came calling on Beijing to host an episode of Trump Trade Theater, the Chinese were ready with their own strategy. After a few months of staged negotiations, it was time to declare victory for Trump while agreeing to basically nothing.
At the first gate, they let Trump have his prize. In February 2019, Trump announced that a deal was being reached and promised a big signing ceremony. Chinese officials quietly hinted that no such agreement was in place, but those comments were largely ignored. When it came time in May to memorialize an agreement, which consisted of little beyond a few empty promises of future action by the Chinese, they simply walked away.
A stage-managed power-slam of the Chinese was meant to be Trump’s signature achievement, and they balked. In a tantrum, Trump doubled down on the disastrous tariffs imposed on American farmers and consumers. The Chinese carefully retaliated, while making preparations for a long siege. Trump may have found a country that won’t be bought or bullied, reinforced by a long-simmering memory and a tradition of multi-decadal planning.
Chances are, the Chinese see in Trump an opportunity far bigger than any trade deal. Donald Trump is the greatest national weakness Americans have displayed since the Civil War, an opportunistic vulnerability the Chinese seem reluctant to waste. How will they exploit this weakness in the world’s only superpower? It isn’t clear, but Trump represents a national failure the Chinese may seize upon when they’re ready.