" "Difficult economic times lie ahead. And with them, even more difficult political times. And they will not be any easier with Trump as our choice to lead us through them." "
Donald Trump sits in his palatial digs at Trump Tower as the lengthening parade of Republicans — and even Democrats: Al Gore! — file in to pay him appropriate obeissance.

It’s a little reminiscent of a Chinese emperor receiving his imperial due from the hinterlands, though Trump — not to mention those he’s picked so far for his court — is considerably richer than those ancient rulers operating with the mandate of heaven.

And imperial China is not a bad metaphor since the biggest Trump news of the past week was the phone call he shared with Taiwan’s president. Coming hard on the heels of a congratulatory conversation he had with the Kazakh dictator — in which Trump lavished ridiculous praise on a totalitarian country he obviously knew nothing about — it raised the question of whether Trump even realized the significance of his Taiwan call.

For over 40 years, since President Nixon and Henry Kissinger outlined the one-China policy in the Shanghai Communique in 1972, US relations with Taiwan, at least diplomatically, have been at arms length. Now, all of a sudden, even before he was sworn in, Trump was casually stirring the pot with China, our key rival in the 21st century.

Trump, put on the defensive by concerned foreign policy realists, tweeted that, after all, the US has long had a significant relationship with Taiwan, involving the sale of billions of dollars of military equipment. And China, publicly, reacted calmly to the call, though behind the scenes, Chinese analysts were somewhat less casual.

After the Trump team huddled for a review of the situation, they claimed that Trump and his advisors had planned in specific detail the discussion points for what they said was a long-scheduled phone call, hoping to deep-six the charge that it was an impulsive, spur-of-the-moment action by the man whose finger will shortly be on the nuclear button. 

Then, tweeting into substance, Trump attacked China’s currency manipulation as well as its aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, even suggesting the possibility of a 35-percent tariff on Chinese imports. The implication was hardly reassuring: had President-elect Trump taken a strategic decision to upgrade Taipei diplomatically while hitting at Beijing’s economy?

Which zeroed in on the question: Which is worse, a Trump that shoots from the hip when dealing with the US’s most pressing international relationship, or a Trump that has carefully reviewed the situation and concluded, a month and a half before he reaches the Oval Office and without any input from our current Secretary of State or others in the Obama administration’s intelligence and foreign policy community, that China needs a punch in the gut?

Presumably, the team of yes-men surrounding Trump forgot to inform him of the key role Beijing is playing in trying to control North Korea as it develops missiles that can deliver nuclear warheads to our West Coast.


Coincidentally, James Fallows, a China expert who has lived there on and off over the recent decade, wrote a long article in this month’s Atlantic, headlined “China’s Great Leap Backward,” in which he discusses US-Chinese relations in the context of China’s recent slower economic growth and more repressive political behavior.

China is in reverse gear: “The China of 2010 was undeniably richer and freer than the China of 2005, which was richer and freer than the China of 2000, and so on.” Its “recent pattern of repression at home and aggression abroad,” Fallows concluded, leaves the US, and the rest of the world, struggling for options. He summarized the responses of the Chinese experts he talked to — when asked how the US should best deal with today’s China — as, “Well, it’s complicated.…”

As Fallows points out, our economies are so intertwined that Trump’s suggestion that if we cut off our economic “relationship with China, China would go bust so fast” misses the point: “Of course, so would everyone else,” Fallows writes, “given China’s integration into the US manufacturing supply chains and its heavy investment in US real estate and financial markets…. The problem is that the two economies are now part of one large whole.”

In that same issue, the 93-year-old Kissinger is interviewed, by Jeffrey Goldberg, about the foreign policy challenges the incoming president will face (unaware at the time of the interview that it would be Trump). Not surprisingly, Kissinger’s key focus is China, and his conclusion reinforces the Fallows article: “A trade war [with China] would devastate both of us.”

Kissinger, who still visits China periodically, and was there this past week, added that China’s initial reaction to Trump’s electioneering bombast was one of “shock” and disbelief: “not so much to his personality, but to the fact that America could produce this kind of political debate.”

If the Chinese have been shocked by Trump, they are hardly alone. Europeans are even more so. Though as the Brexit vote showed, reinforced just this past week by Italy’s rejection of their prime minister, the Western world has moved into populist, anti-establishment mode. It’s urban vs. rural, the college educated vs. high school only, the professional class vs. the forgotten worker. Developed economies worldwide appear to be in a permanent low-growth zone — which means, for the working class, no growth.

Difficult economic times lie ahead. And with them, even more difficult political times. And they will not be any easier with Trump as our choice to lead us through them.

Nixon, and his sidekick Kissinger, were famous for promoting the “madman” theory, that the Soviet Union needed to handle Nixon with kid gloves because he might be just crazy enough to respond to a perceived threat with nuclear weapons. 

With Trump, we’ve got the “ignorant man” theory, that because he knows next to nothing about foreign affairs, who knows what unintended damage he’ll inflict next. Unfortunately, it’s not just a theory.