President Trump wanted to make China central to the 2020 campaign. Congratulations, Mr. President. You’ll get your wish.
Trump’s begging Chinese dictator Xi Jinping to help him win reelection and his praise for Xi’s detention of 1 million Muslim Uighurs in indoctrination and forced-labor camps are the most shocking revelations in former national security adviser John Bolton’s new book.
This information is important not just because it demonstrates that Trump’s “tough on China” rhetoric is hypocritical or confirms that Trump’s only foreign policy concern is to get other countries to advance his personal interests.
These revelations matter because they show that the very heart of Trump’s appeal — to “Make America Great Again” by putting “America First” — is a lie all the way down. The paltry crowd he drew to his Saturday rally in Tulsa suggests that a spirit of doubt is taking hold even in his onetime strongholds.
Trump never had any interest in the real sources of American greatness. He used an isolationist slogan from the late 1930s and early 1940s to suggest that our problems were with our democratic allies, not with tyrants. And he rejected what our greatest leaders always understood: that American influence in the world rests, finally, on whether our democracy provides an example that others would freely wish to emulate.
Genuine American patriotism should never depend on false assertions of our perfection or a denial of our own sins. On the contrary, our desire to be what the prophet Isaiah calleda “light unto the nations” was always best invoked not as a boast but as a call to conscience.
This year’s Juneteenth celebrations of emancipation should encourage us to remember what Abraham Lincoln said in 1858 about “the monstrous injustice of slavery.”
“I hate it,” Lincoln declared, “because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world, enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites, causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity.” Defenders of slavery, Lincoln said, were “insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”
Notice what Lincoln was doing: He linked a moral stand against slavery with the best interests of the United States that lay firmly with “the real friends of freedom” in the world. And he noted how our own failures would enable the enemies of freedom to taunt us.
This is a remarkably precise description of what Trump’s actions at home and abroad have wrought. Supporters of free institutions everywhere are aghast at what has become of us. The Xis and Putins of the world mock us, all the while knowing that the self-seeking simpleton in the White House will “make deals” with them on his own behalf. They can point to the abrupt firing of Geoffrey Berman, the independent-minded U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, to question whether our nation lives up to its claims of placing the rule of law above the whims and wishes of any chief executive.
The dictators also know that Trump longs to exercise the same absolute powers they do because he says so outright. His comment on the Uighurs was entirely consistent with a worldview, if it can be called that, lacking any respect for what the words “democracy” or “republicanism” mean.
Like all demagogues, he longs for the adulation of crowds and thus scheduled the Tulsa rally against the spirit of his own administration’s medical guidance. He doesn’t seem to care if his own loyalists get sick or die, though Saturday’s no-shows apparently did.
Just as telling is his attitude toward his fellow citizens who would exercise their liberty to dissent. “Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes who are going to Oklahoma please understand, you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis,” he tweeted Friday. “It will be a much different scene!”
The classic authoritarian move is to obliterate the distinction between protesting and looting, between peaceful assembly and anarchy. Everyone who stands against him becomes an “enemy of the state.”
Those opponents now encompass the entire range of foreign policy thinking — from dove to hawk, anti-interventionist to realist to neoconservative, free trade to fair trade. Defeating Trump will not settle their differences. But between now and November, what they share matters far more.
At a minimum, they believe foreign policy should be about the interests of the country, not the needs of one man. They experience the same sense of horror when an American president praises a dictator for placing 1 million people into concentration camps.
And however much those who stand against him might argue over whether the United States has lived up to its democratic ideals — whether at home or in alliances-of-convenience with dictatorships — they understand, like Lincoln, that our country will lose both its soul and its standing if it casts those ideals aside.
So from here forward, remember that whenever Trump uses the word “China,” he is talking about a regime he approached as a supplicant and whose repressive powers he envies.