Welcome to the ‘Shitshow’ of American Politics

Presidential debate demonstrates a US in precipitous decline

If Asians were looking to the United States as an exemplar of democratic government to counter the authoritarianism of Xi Jinping and his overbearing regime, then the debate on September 29 between President Donald Trump and his Democratic Party challenger Joe Biden was a disheartening disaster, termed by observers the worst debate in American political history. It was.

“I guess we should have taken what we expected to be the worst possible debate and then gone lower,” said a contributor to a podcast by the Fivethirtyeight polling analysis firm. Others characterized it as a dumpster fire, a train wreck, a disgrace, a ‘shitshow’ in the words of one television presenter. They all seem to apply.

From the start, Trump set out to bully Biden at every opportunity, overriding virtually every response Biden made by trying to shout him down. Biden answered by calling Trump a liar and a clown who didn’t know what he was talking about.

Certainly, there was plenty of policy that needed to be discussed – the US mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has taken the lives of more than 210,000 Americans and sickened more than 7.4 million – far more than any other major country by population ratio; climate change, which has caused global warming that has ravaged the US west with forest fires; rising racial violence in American cities; the US stance on treaty cooperation overseas. It was all lost in the sea of invective.

The fault, it is clear, largely lies with the president, who was there to attempt to win by browbeating his opponent. But Biden’s tide of insults was hardly the way to respond. Both candidates, asked direct questions about their policies and positions on important issues, ignored the questions to attack each other on their intelligence, the integrity and honesty of their family members and other issues that had nothing to do with the crises that America and the world find themselves in.

What are those in Asia to make of this, those who presumably take their inspiration from 226 years of successful democracy that began with President George Washington’s farewell address – one of the world’s first willing transfers of power? What are the opponents of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s authoritarian reign to make of it when Donald Trump refuses to agree to leave power if defeated in a democratic election? Hun Sen’s opposition in Cambodia? The Junta in Thailand? What are the members of the ketuanan Melayu government in Malaysia to think when the president refuses to condemn racism? What do the democrats in Hong Kong think who hoped to resist Xi’s brutal crackdown on their nascent efforts to transition to one-man, one-vote rule?

Not much.

The United States has been steadily losing influence across Asia since the Vietnam War ended with defeat. But its loss of influence has accelerated with the onset of the Trump administration in 2016. Trump has never understood that America’s influence in the world has depended as much on its moral standing as its military power, that in Asia especially, soft power provided Japan with a democratic constitution in 1945 as did its efforts to broker democracy in Myanmar in 2010, to rid the Philippines of Ferdinand Marcos by flying him out of the country in 1986, to provide development aid to Thailand in the 1950s to counter a communist insurrection, among many other examples.

It should be pointed out, of course, that the US has plenty to answer for. Far too often it has sought to overthrow governments it doesn’t like, it has sought to dictate policy to its client states, it has too often used its military might unjustly. But it has also stood as a guarantor of the peace for countries that looked to it for protection. It worked in ways big and small. When as a correspondent for the Asian Wall Street Journal my colleague and I were ordered out of Malaysia in 1986 within 72 hours for writing about corruption, the late Thomas P. Shoesmith, the US Ambassador, in a single day managed to organize a “going-away” party that attracted 200 supportive people in the teeth of a hostile Malaysia government. That would seem unthinkable today.

Xi Jinping undoubtedly welcomes the train wreck the Trump administration is making of itself. It allows Xi to ignore criticism of the hideous concentration camps it has created for Uighurs in Xinjiang, to gloss over its subjugation of the Tibetans, to glide past its autocratic takeover of the South China Sea almost to the borders of the littoral states that were there long before Admiral Zheng He went to sea, to look the other way when its functionaries crack down on Hong Kong, when its jets overfly Taiwan, arguably the most successful democracy in Asia.

Across the world, as the president has torn up treaties and alienated allies – Japan and South Korea, for instance, by demanding exorbitant fees and rents to keep American troops housed on their soil, and by allowing tensions going back to World War II to fester between the two, by praising the Philippines’ Duterte for his murderous drug war, Asian leaders have been spectators to US abandonment of its leadership role.

Trump’s nullification of the 16-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership – clearly without ever having read an analysis of it – left the Pacific Rim nations to go it alone. The treaty, years in the making, was first formulated in the administration of George W. Bush. 

All of this was to China’s benefit. If Biden wins, the task of putting America’s leadership of the west back together is going to be a monumental task. Trump’s precipitous trade war on China – which sorely needs to be brought up short for its mercantilist trade policies – has been disastrous for US companies as well as for China. Beijing needed to be confronted with a unified front of western nations that have been victimized for three decades by China’s trade policies. The vehicle to do that – the TPP – was demolished by Trump. Taking on China by itself, Trump merely succeeded in destroying supply chains, forcing US companies to regroup and search for other manufacturing sites.

Two successive incompetent and indeed hostile secretaries of state have wrecked the State Department. A generation, perhaps two, of capable diplomats have left. Nor is the State Department alone. Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, Peter Navarro, the special assistant to the president for trade policy, and others have wrecked their respective departments.

In the meantime, China, through its multi-trillion Belt and Road Initiative, has seized the advantage. With an economy that appears to be relatively healthy while the US continues to stumble through the Covid-19 crisis, it is not going to give up that advantage. The damage is likely to be permanent. Asia has been shown that dramatically, on television, with two septuagenarians squabbling over personal slights and paying no attention to America’s position in world leadership.


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