After its long-standing plan to run on the economy has collapsed, President Trump’s reelection campaign is beginning to reconstitute itself around a different theme: China. Axios reported yesterday that Trump’s campaign plans to make attacks on Biden over China a central issue. The campaign has released an ad attacking Biden as too compromised by Beijing to effectively contain the coronavirus, and its plans to stage a confrontation with the World Health Organization seem designed to stoke the controversy.
The sentiment (describing it as an “argument” would be to extend the claim more credit than it deserves) is to reframe how the public thinks about the coronavirus by stringing together associations. Trump links the coronavirus with its country of origin, thus equating hostility with China with effective response to the coronavirus. BIDEN PROTECTED CHINA’S FEELINGS, charges the ad, WHILE CHINA CRIPPLES AMERICA.
Trump is trying to get voters to stop thinking of the coronavirus as a public-health problem, and instead imagine it as a foreign-policy confrontation, with the important quality of leadership being a willingness to offend China. Trump had the guts to take the un-PC step of closing travel to China, they argue, and Biden didn’t. Trump was willing to be called racist to save lives, but Biden is either too sensitive or too compromised by China to take the tough steps.
In reality, the argument strings together a series of falsehoods and bizarre logic. The first and largest lie is Trump’s claim that Biden opposed his travel ban as racist. Biden did not oppose the travel ban, and Trump’s campaign has produced no statement by him opposing the ban. In place of evidence that he ever did, Trump has quoted Biden describing him promoting “xenophobia” in general, but Biden’s comment was not specifically directed at the travel ban. (Biden made that remark at about the same time of day the travel ban was instituted, and apparently without even knowing that Trump did it.)
Biden also appears in Trump’s ad saying, “banning all travel will not stop” the coronavirus. The best evidence for this point of view is that the coronavirus still made it to the United States. Of course the travel ban didn’t stop the coronavirus. Trump’s ad is attacking Biden for a prediction that was correct. It was Trump’s apparent belief that the travel ban permanently halted the coronavirus’s progress that contributed to his disastrous complacency over the following weeks. Trump’s campaign is anchoring the debate on an specific argument — will the China travel ban by itself stop the coronavirus? — where his opponent has been proven right, and he has been proven wrong. It’s as if the president of France was running for reelection in the fall of 1940 by boasting the Maginot Line had kept out the Germans.
What brings the charge beyond mere falseness, to the point of outright absurdity, is that Trump himself is guilty of the exact thing he is falsely charging Biden of. Trump’s depiction of his opponent as a corrupt dupe for the Chinese communist regime is a much more accurate depiction of Trump himself.
Trump’s charge of corruption is connected to reality by the thinnest strand: Hunter Biden’s firm sought to make a deal in China while his father served as vice-president. But Trump’s claims are ludicrous. He says Hunter Biden “walked out of China with $1.5 billion in a fund” and earned “millions.” In fact, there is no evidence he earned any money at all from China, let alone any evidence Joe Biden did anything unethical on his son’s behalf. Hunter Biden is a screwup who was trying to trade on his father’s name, but — perhaps because he’s a screwup — he apparently did not succeed.
Meanwhile, Trump and his family have very much exploited their position to enrich themselves from China. As president, Trump has made a series of deals with Chinese firms: a golf club in Dubai, $500 million in Chinese government backing for a project in Indonesia, financing for a Jared Kushner real-estate project, a cash-for-visas deal, and a lucrative Chinese trademark grant for Ivanka’s brand. The very idea that Trump’s family businesses could make arm’s-length transactions with China’s government and business elite, with no implicit connection to Donald Trump’s China policy, is laughable on its face.
Of course, Trump has intermittently confronted China on trade policy. He is not a puppet of Beijing. But he is far from the China hawk depicted by his campaign. Trump’s susceptibility to flattery and instinctive admiration for dictators has drawn him into China’s embrace over and over. In public, he praised China’s handling of the coronavirus over and over. Biden frequently criticized China at the same time Trump was hailing it. (Trump: February 25: China is “working very, very hard” to contain the coronavirus and “they’re getting it more and more under control.” Biden, the next day: “I would not not be taking China’s word for it.”)
In private, Trump expressed even more credulity than he did in public. This weekend’s New York Times report on his catastrophically slow response shows that Trump’s desire to maintain close ties to China played a crucial role in his initial denial of the crisis. When the coronavirus first began to spread in Wuhan, Trump was trying to finalize the trade deal that he would tout on the campaign trail, and didn’t want to rock the boat. Trump staffers alarmed over the outbreak “ran into opposition from Mr. Trump’s economic advisers, who worried a tough approach toward China could scuttle a trade deal that was a pillar of Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign,” the Times reports. And when aides floated tough rhetoric, “Trump rejected the idea of criticizing China, saying the country had enough to deal with.”
Trump’s Jekyll-and-Hyde posture toward China seems to reflect a tension between the calculations of his political advisers, who wish to posture him as a warrior against an unpopular foreign enemy, and his own instincts. Trump takes visceral delight in the displays of friendship and respect he receives from Xi Jinping. His joyful description of their time together enjoying chocolate cake and ordering missile strikes is almost sensual.
Trump’s campaign needs something to change the subject from Trump’s botching of the pandemic. Turning the problem into a contest of which candidate is more willing to say offensive things is a strategy with at least some superficial promise. Unfortunately for them, the candidate himself is too easily lured by money and compliments to stick to the script.