China’s Xi Jinping is playing the dream role America’s Donald Trump can only aspire to
Robert Delaney says pundits who rank Chinese President Xi Jinping’s powers above Donald Trump’s have it right, as American voters still don’t embrace autocracy and public opinion still matters
As President Donald Trump scanned the cable networks last week, the reports from Beijing must have given him heartburn. President Xi Jinping was billed as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Add the trajectory of China’s economy and Xi’s standing since the 19th Communist Party Congress, as well as the technical and structural means he has to drive policy and check dissent, and one might conclude – as The Economist did – that Xi “has more clout than Donald Trump”.
What we know of Trump’s political philosophy more closely mirrors the kind of deference to authority seen in Chinese and Russian political culture than it does American proclivities.
Trump tweeted about Xi’s “extraordinary elevation” within a party-state on track to beat the Soviet Union’s record in terms of longevity. That will happen by the time China’s leaders gather for their next party congress.
However, the American political structure and overall ideological orientation won’t allow Trump the indulgences he wants, whether it’s the blunt instruments he expects to control immigration (a Mexico border wall, a block on arrivals from many mainly Muslim nations) or the freedoms he expects on physical contact with women.
Trump’s rating is at its lowest since he took office, The Wall Street Journal reported at the weekend, citing a poll, with Americans disapproving of, among other things, “his handling of some policy issues”. Trump’s job approval rating stood at 38 per cent, a five-point drop from September. Overall, 58 per cent said they disapproved of the job he has done.
Adding insult to injury, a federal grand jury in Washington on Friday approved the first charges in an investigation into ties between people connected to the Trump administration and Russia. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is running the investigation, which Trump did his best to thwart by firing the former FBI chief, James Comey.
All of this "Russia" talk right when the Republicans are making their big push for historic Tax Cuts & Reform. Is this coincidental? NOT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2017
Whether or not US investigators find any real connection between Trump and Russian attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election, the effort shows the limits of a US president who expects every gear in the machinery of government to serve his agenda, much the way things work in Beijing. It’s no accident that senior White House adviser Stephen Miller has outlasted Stephen Bannon, Reince Priebus and so many others close to Trump. Miller made waves by declaring early in Trump’s tenure that the actions of the US president “will not be questioned”.
All US presidents at some point bristle at the checks and balances, but largely accept that the system is meant to ensure executive orders are legally well-grounded and address real concerns. Miller’s declaration, which earned him Trump’s loyalty, showed as much about the US president’s scorn for this central tenet of US governance as it did for his appreciation of the way things are done in Beijing.
While technology and foreign influence may have weakened the US electorate’s ability to make choices based on facts, most US voters still don’t embrace autocracy. This reality confirms the conclusions of pundits who rank Xi’s power above Trump’s.
How Xi Jinping became China’s ‘chairman of everything’
We’ll never know Xi’s approval rating because that kind of transparency spooks the Chinese government, but we can probably assume that he’s doing better than Trump in the court of domestic public opinion. If 58 per cent of mainland Chinese disapproved of Xi, he couldn’t have pulled off such a well-orchestrated consolidation of power last week.
Unless Trump manages to turn his presidency around and prove his accusers wrong, the only way he’ll get close to Xi’s power will be by sending flattering tweets.
Robert Delaney is a US correspondent for the Post based in New York