The Republican Party stands at the threshold of nominating a candidate for president who will prove to China’s leadership why further democratic reforms are unnecessary, unproductive and unlikely to lead to economic and political stability.
THINK it’s hard to explain Trump’s candidacy in the United States? Try doing it in China. I should know — I’ve been trying for the last several months.
Responses in China range from the perplexed to the hostile, with very few finding it funny.
Whether or not Trump is successful in either his quest for the GOP nomination or the presidency, the message his candidacy sends to countries like China says nothing good about the state of American politics. The much bigger problem is that Trump’s rise comes at a time when China’s own political development could use a reminder of how and why a healthy democracy governs as it does.
When China looks at America today through the prism of the Trump campaign, it takes away two lessons. First, democracies in general are not to be trusted because people are too easily swayed by rhetoric, bombast and personality. Second, America’s political system has transitioned into an increasingly unstable and unpredictable phase that could easily upend our globalized world.
Much of what inhibits further political liberalization across China today is the belief, widely held among many of the Chinese Communist Party’s technocrats: that people are not to be trusted to responsibly vote based on a dispassionate analysis of the facts versus an emotional response to a master showman. The Communist Party believes it is the steward of these responsibilities on the people’s behalf because average people cannot be trusted to critically think through questions of policy and statesmanship.
It’s better to have the trusted technocrat, the benevolent dictator, make decisions on everyone’s behalf than allow an easily swayed public do so themselves. The American conservative movement has long passionately argued the exact opposite: that the individual knows better than a technocratic overlord. Yet the modern Republican Party now could potentially nominate a candidate for president who would prove to China’s leadership why further democratic reforms are unnecessary, unproductive and unlikely to lead to economic and political stability.
It is bad enough to have Trump’s candidacy further reinforce the Communist Party’s belief that democracy is not to be trusted. Even worse is that regardless of the outcome of this election, China’s leadership understands that American politics is in a troubled place. Aware of its own economic and political insecurities, China now looks at us and sees its largest trading partner and closest near-peer competitor on equally uncertain footing. This has all the hallmarks of the sort of historical miscalculations that have led to unproductive tension and, in the most extreme cases, conflict.
America’s electoral calculus is becoming clear to everyone around the world: With each primary cycle, the parties become more extreme, which leads to America’s moderate middle becoming even more disgusted at politics in general, which could be lowering voter participation. What begins as a process of political extremism ultimately results in an increasingly radical government.
Looking at this from the outside in — as friends, colleagues and policymakers in China are — makes it easier to see how troubling these trends are. What makes for a great season of “Saturday Night Live” also points toward some of democracy’s flaws — specifically that a democracy is only healthy when the majority of its citizens are educated, involved and engaged in passionate, but tempered, arguments about a country’s politicians and policies. We see so much in Trump to despise, and yet his success is a mirror that allows us to see the state of American political culture, with all its pettiness of spirit and form.
We would do well to recall, as people in China who know the history of their Cultural Revolution do, that there can be worse manipulators than Trump. China understands what happens when a populace primed by rhetorical excess crashes into a true demagogue during a moment of economic or political crisis.
China learned this lesson the hard way, which is why its political system today looks the way it does. If China’s political model is right, the average person is not to be trusted. If America’s model is, we will work to purge our politics of the manufactured outrages, rhetorical excesses and blind partisanship that have made Donald Trump a viable option for the presidency.