Tea Leaf Nation
America’s Mao Zedong
Donald Trump's administration has been chaotic. Chinese history suggests that's by design.
In the approximately two weeks that President Donald Trump has been President of the United States, the country has witnessed the passage of an executive order that radically altered U.S. immigration policy without any plan for its execution, the firing of a high government official for her “betrayal” of the administration, and a series of obvious Trump-generated falsehoods coupled with public, and almost daily, vilification of the press. In many ways, Trump has completely upended the usual course of events that accompanies the smooth transition of power in America.
In some ways, it’s comforting to argue, as some have, that this all demonstrates Trump’s ineptitude, and makes it increasingly likely he won’t serve eight years as President, or perhaps even four. But Trump’s goal appears different from any man who has inhabited the White House before him. He likely does not necessarily want to achieve a specific policy goal that fits into a cohesive framework. Instead, his goal appears to be the chaos that has resulted from his decisions so far. And he appears willing to resort to methods that are more authoritarian than they are democratic to achieve this disorder. To understand him, pundits would be better off comparing him to Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic of China, than to any past U.S. President. While Trump has done nothing that matches the scale or cruelty of Mao’s policies, some historical parallels help illuminate the new President’s objectives and behavior.
Mao came to power as a revolutionary populist intent on overturning China’s old order. Those tendencies help to explain why China was enveloped in chaos for most of his 27-year reign. These are some of the same impulses found in Trump, his campaign, and thus far his presidency, as China scholar Orville Schell noted at a Jan. 19 talk hosted by the non-profit Asia Society. Trump’s preeminent goal is not necessarily to advance U.S. economic interests or even to advocate a coherent policy platform. Rather his motivating impulse is to upset the current world order: “I think there is a bit of an outsider, troublemaker, turner-over of old orders, putting fingers in the eyes of the establishment in Donald Trump,” Schell said.
It is the disarray and the upending of society that appeals to the U.S. President. “If you don’t destroy, you can’t construct” was a favorite saying of Mao as he took China down the pointless and profoundly self-destructive path of a continuous revolution. Understanding that aspect of Trump is important in figuring out how to deal with his presidency. Appealing to economic logic when he calls for a 20 percent tariff on Mexican goods and calling on American values when he institutes a ban on Muslim immigration is not going to resonate with him.
Ideological, not beneficial
Part of an authoritarian regime is the dedication to ideological projects — even at the expense of economic or social progress. For Mao, the Great Leap Forward, which lasted from 1958 to 1962, stands out. In order to prove that China had made the “great leap” to an industrialized, rich, communist society, Mao ordered the complete collectivization of farms, factories, and most of Chinese society. Harebrained ideas — like digging crops deeper, smelting steel in backyard furnaces, and building useless irrigation projects — resulted in one of the greatest man-made famines in history. Within a year, the leadership knew that the program was a failure. But the ruling Communist Party ignored this fact and continued its campaign, committed to the ideological line underneath it.
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In his first week in office, Trump has already called for an ideological project that looks set to hurt the United States more than it will help: completing the border wall between the United States and Mexico. Most undocumented immigrants in the United States are stateside because they overstayed their legally-obtained visas, not because they waltzed across the Mexican border. Trump ignores this fact and instead has proposed building a border wall that will cost between $10 billion (Trump’s estimate) and $38 billion (MIT’s estimate). While he demands Mexico pay for the wall, the only proposal Trump has offered to make that happen is a 20 percent tariff on Mexican goods, a tariff that will likely be borne by the U.S. consumer.
Yet the emphasis here is on ideology and not practicality. For this reason, it’s not particularly important that grand projects are well-thought out or properly executed. During the Great Leap Forward, Mao decided that China would double its steel production. To meet this goal, Mao instituted “backyard furnaces:” every item made of metal — doorknobs, farm tools — was smelted down. But as Mao would learn too late, smelted metal produces inferior quality steel that cannot be used, let alone sold abroad.
Similarly, when Trump issued a January 27, 2017 executive order to ban immigration of Muslims from certain countries, at least for several months, he seemingly gave no thought to its legality or to its implementation. It was signed after 4 o’clock on a Friday and took immediate effect, leaving the agencies tasked with implementing it unprepared. Immigration officials, who had no prior notice of the precise contents of the executive order, were left largely in the dark, and when refugees, green card holders, and visa holders arrived, chaos ensued.
But decrying the disorder of it all is unlikely to cause Trump to change his mind. Expect Trump, like Mao, to double down when confronted with facts about the failure of a grand project’s implementation. During the Great Leap Forward, Mao once remarked, “When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” On Jan. 30, Trump lashed out on his twitter feed to the fallout of his now-infamous executive order. If he had given any time for the order to be properly implemented “the ‘bad’ would rush into our country during that week. A lot of bad “dudes” out there!”
Of purges and sycophants
From Mao to current Chinese President Xi Jinping, Chinese politics have been roiled with political purges. It has allowed the current leader to eliminate threats to his power, maintain his authoritarian control, and ensure that those remaining quickly fall in line. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, Mao purged Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, two senior officials who had gained support among the Party for their economic reforms. Liu eventually died in prison but Deng was able to survive. Mao died in 1976, and in the early 1990s, Deng would begin to implement the proposed economic reforms that had cost Liu his life.
Under Trump’s rule, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was the first to go, booted from the transition team even before Trump officially took office. On Jan. 30, Trump carried out his first purge of his administration: the firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates who, like the courts, questioned the legality of his executive order and called on the Justice Department staff to decline to defend it. Reminiscent of Party’s use of politically-charged rhetoric and questioning the person’s loyalty to the Party, Trump issued a similar factional statement, slamming Yates’ “betrayal” of the Justice Department and Yates herself as “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.”
But purges are not only about eliminating threats; they also ensure that those remaining toe the party line. Before the Great Leap Forward, Premier Zhou Enlai had fallen out of Mao’s favor. Desperate to get back in his graces, Zhou became an ardent supporter of Mao’s mad project even though Zhou quickly became aware that the program was a huge failure, with massive numbers starving to death. But fearful of a purge, Zhou never revealed the truth to Mao, afraid to challenge him. Instead, Zhou continued to order that Mao’s irrational demands be fulfilled.
Most Republicans did not speak out against the Jan. 27 executive order that banned, for at least several months, Muslims from a select list of countries from legally entering the United States. Even Republicans who previously condemned Trump’s call for a for a Muslim ban — Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Paul Ryan, newly appointed Secretary of Defense James Mattis among them — have fallen in line. After all, speaking up may mean falling out of Trump’s favor.
This is why Trump’s cabinet appointees’ statements to the Senate during their confirmation hearings — that climate change is real, that waterboarding is torture —mean nothing. Once in office, it’s likely they will be like Pence and Mattis, willing to stand behind Trump’s extreme views and carry out his orders. And now that Trump has appointed Steve Bannon — chief strategist, confidant, and heretofore intelligence novice — to the National Security Council, while simultaneously downgrading the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff to a need to know basis, Trump is telling his cabinet that ideology takes precedent over expertise. Or as they say in China, in red versus expert, red wins.
Attacks on the press
Calling the press “the opposition party,” lecturing reporters on what they “should be writing,” and referring to journalists as “the most dishonest human beings on earth” are all a part of the Trump administration’s strategy to crush the U.S. media. It eerily mirrors the Communist Party’s efforts to ensure freedom of the press never takes hold in China. Discrediting genuine free press is core to this effort; as Party officials wrote in a leaked internal document, “the ultimate goal of advocating the West’s view of the media is to hawk the principle of abstract and absolute freedom of the press, oppose the Party’s leadership in the media, and gouge an opening through which to infiltrate our ideology.”
The question remains just how far the Trump administration will go in trying to clamp down on the U.S. press. The Communist Party, especially today’s version, offers one possible template, which has been frighteningly effective even in a global, pervasive media environment. The Party arrests and prosecutes journalists on trumped up charges, randomly detains reporters critical of the government, and toys with the visa process for disfavored foreign journalists, which and in some cases has led to their expulsion.
Despite the Trump administration’s censure, the U.S. press continues to try to serve its role as a watchdog of the government. But if the Trump administration steps up its campaign against the press à la the Communist Party, it’s not entirely clear who will win.
An alternate reality
Throughout his campaign and now, in the first week of his administration, Trump has been accused of pushing his own version of the truth. But alternative realities are nothing new to an authoritarian regime. The Great Leap Forward itself — and the 30 million who perished — has largely been forgotten as a result of the Party’s censorship. It is not much taught in Chinese schools; if it is mentioned, it is not described as the disaster that it was. A recent book, written by a Chinese journalist who used his access to Chinese government archives to find narrative details of the project’s human toll, has been banned in China. But the Party has effectively erased even more recent events, like the Chinese government’s censorship of its violent crackdown in 1989 on protests near Tiananmen Square in central Beijin According to the Party, it was not a mass movement calling for greater liberalization, but a small group of rioters and thugs, who incited others to misbehave. Even in the age of the Internet, few know the full truth of what happened; to the extent that Chinese younger than 35 know anything about Tiananmen, it is largely colored by the Party’s alternative reality.
In just the past week, the Trump administration has offered a bevy of alternate realities of its own. It has insisted that its inauguration crowd was larger than President Barak Obama’s when pictures and data clearly show otherwise; stated an executive order is not a ban on Muslim immigration; and claimed with no evidence that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 Presidential election. And like the Chinese Communist Party, Trump also blames others for “inciting” protests against his rule.
To be clear, the United States is not China. Americans are not inevitably destined to succumb to an authoritarian regime. But many — those in the U.S. Congress, some in the media, and many U.S. voters — have been too slow to grasp that Trump’s government does not share the goals of Presidential administrations throughout history. Therefore, the ordinary give and take and horse-trading of politics are not going to suffice; bolder steps need to be taken for those concerned about a lurch toward authoritarianism. Constant and public pressure on the administration will surely be necessary. But scrambling in response to every provocation is not a strategy. As Mao showed, stopping a leader who actually prefers chaos is no easy task.
This article originally appeared on China Law & Policy. It has been subsequently edited.
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