Donald Trump, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio closed out the week by crowding into South Carolina to speechify on the Chinese threat. That felt appropriate, considering China itself launched the week by turning global markets upside down. Watch the remarks in reverse order — try Rubio, then Trump — and it’s a bit like witnessing the Republican version of President Obama and his anger translator: A measured take on a pressing international challenge unravels into a manic yawp. Only in the joke, the President brings out his translator to speak rough truths because his office demands niceties that mask his real meaning. In reality, for better or worse, it’s the other way around — complex problems require nuance.
Trump’s views on China (and he’s offered them up plenty, as the topic’s become a hobbyhorse for the GOP frontrunner) can be deceiving. He flogs the historically huge — or “yuge” — trade imbalance between the U.S. and the Asian superpower. And he calls out China for perpetrating “the greatest theft in the history of the United States and perhaps the world.”
Neither claim is baseless. Our bilateral trade deficit is breaking records. And while Trump passes off the “theft” insight as his own — “I said it the other day, and I thought it was very good,” he told his Thursday audience in Greenville, S.C. — original credit for it owes to Keith Alexander, who as the National Security Agency director in 2012 referred to the Chinese lifting of American intellectual property as “the greatest transfer of wealth in history.” That judgment was affirmed a year later by the Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property — co-chaired by Dennis Blair, the former Director of National Intelligence, and Jon Huntsman, the former U.S. ambassador to China.
But the veneer of truthiness on Trump’s takes obscures a muddle. To address our trade deficit, Trump prescribes imposing Smoot-Hawley-style tariffs that would precipitate a trade war and devastate exports. And when Trump speaks about Chinese theft, it appears he’s talking not just about intellectual property but also their buying of American debt. In fact, China’s purchase of U.S. Treasuries affirms their dependency on the dollar.
Obviously, this stuff is complicated. Trump isn’t likely losing sleep over it. Demagoguery is easy — and, as we’ve seen, effective.