President Donald Trump speaks at the White House March 21, 2019. (CNS photo/Joshua Roberts, Reuters)

A concern for human rights and democracy has often been seen as an add-on to our country’s foreign policy, an attractive veneer over the usual realpolitik. But President Trump is demonstrating that a supposedly “America First” policy focused entirely on trade and divorced from a commitment to our values is incoherent. 

Trump is embarrassing our country—and weakening it, too—by refusing to stand with the people of Hong Kong as they struggle against China’s dictatorship.

We have long wondered when the thoughtless chaos of Trump’s presidency would finally catch up with him and endanger our country. How long could an administration that replaces policy with impulse and thinking with tweeting stay out of crisis? The disarray around Trump’s China policy and the economic turmoil it has unleashed tell us that moment is now.

Somehow, Trump seemed to think that he could be tough on China and still express his admiration for President Xi Jinping’s brutally authoritarian rule.

“He’s now president for life. President for life. And he’s great,” Trump told Republican donors at a fundraising event at his Mar-a-Lago estate in early 2018. “And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll give that a shot some day.”

So it should not surprise us that as Xi tries to put down pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong, Trump was ready to employ “the language used by Communist Party officials,” as the New York Times put it, in saying on August 1 that Hong Kong has had “riots for a long period of time.” 

“Somebody said that at some point they’re going to want to stop that,” Trump added. “But that’s between Hong Kong and that’s between China, because Hong Kong is a part of China.” Translation: Do what you have to do, China.

Trump underscored his indifference to democracy Tuesday on Twitter. Responding to Chinese troops gathering at the Hong Kong border, he said only: “Everyone should be calm and safe!”

This reaction is scandalous from the leader of a nation whose Constitution begins with the words: “We the People.”

Trump’s nihilism is wreaking havoc on our economy and around the world.

When it came to trade negotiations, Trump blustered about imposing new tariffs on Chinese goods, sent the stock market into a tailspin, and then backed off from many of the tariffs, “just in case they might have an impact on people.” 

We count on presidents to consider “just in case” issues before they act. With Trump, it’s all a thoughtless, strategy-less blur. Say anything, see how it goes, then say something else.

He charmingly expressed concern about the effect of the tariffs on “the Christmas shopping season,” thus effectively contradicting his own false claims that Chinese, not Americans, would pay the tariffs.

But Trump’s correction-on-the-fly may not be able to undo the damage he (and Xi) have done to the world economy. The stock market’s dive on Wednesday reflected recession fears gripping investors. Unsurprisingly, Trump’s about-face seemed motivated not by any grand strategy but by a purely selfish concern for his own reelection. “Nobody wants to run for president, on either party, in the middle of a recession,” Tom Donohue, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO, told CNBC.

What’s maddening about Trump’s approach at a practical level is that many nations, including the United States’ traditional democratic allies, see China as a bad actor tearing up trade rules not to its liking and regularly violating intellectual property rights. But rather than going about the patient work of building support for what should be a broad and united front against China’s abuses, Trump’s erratic approach is making it easier for China to cast the U.S. as the heavy. This does not put the interests of America first.

And Trump’s affection for dictatorships is squandering the high ground our country has historically been able to occupy, even in the face of our imperfections and inconsistencies. Championing democracy is not simply the right thing to do. It is a strategic asset. It is also in our national interest at a time when democracy is under challenge from both China and Russia and faces nationalist threats in countries whose free institutions once seemed secure.

Our president has already done grave damage to our nation’s domestic fabric by dividing us against each other, provoking both racism and nativism, and seeking to delegitimize all who stand against him. Now, his nihilism is wreaking havoc on our economy and around the world. This is the place where a slapdash, value-free approach to governing was bound to lead us.

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a contributing writer for Commonweal. His most recent book is Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite To Save Our Country (Macmillan, 2020).

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