The Fire Sale of Ideas
On 20th January we’ll finally see the end of Donald Trump’s presidency and the hideous parade of venality, willful incompetence, and assaults on the American republic that have characterized it. Many of Trump’s policies and ideas are idiotic and deserve to be trashed. Yet, just as a broken clock is correct at least twice a day, Trump got a few important things right. Here’s what the Democrats should salvage from the Trump train wreck.
Shortly after Donald Trump won the 2016 election, he caused a stir in diplomatic circles by directly taking a congratulatory call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen because it broke with diplomatic protocol and could be taken to imply he recognized her as a head of state.
Really, though, there was no good reason for Trump to continue that policy. For decades, the US (and most other countries) has bent over backwards to accommodate China’s hair-trigger sensibilities, including by snubbing Taiwan’s democratically-elected leaders and the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of millions of Buddhists around the world. As with all bullies, however, this has only served to encourage China to become even more hypersensitive and to make even more ridiculous demands, such that it throws a fit at Marriott for listing Hong Kong and Taiwan as countries on its website and tries to punish Australia just for calling for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. China has stripped Hong Kong of the special freedoms and high degree of autonomy it promised it (and, in doing so, flouted its treaty obligations), and is asserting its ludicrous claims over the South China Sea. In recent years, and especially under President Xi Jinping, China has grown increasingly repressive at home and increasingly aggressive abroad.
It is past time the US stopped catering to China’s whims in the vain hope that this will make it improve its behavior, something the Trump administration recognized. To his credit, Trump upended several longstanding assumptions regarding relations with China, assumptions that, upon closer examination, aren’t really justified. People assumed the US was afraid of seeming too friendly with Taiwan because this might antagonize China – US-Taiwan relations are now stronger than ever, and Beijing has fumed impotently. People assumed the US would not risk a trade war with China – not only did the US show itself willing to initiate a trade war with China, it showed it could fight one and still enjoy strong economic growth (at least until the coronavirus hit), and that it could use this capacity and willingness to fight as leverage. People assumed the US was keen to avoid a confrontation with China – in its 2017 National Security Strategy, the US branded China a “strategic competitor,” thus acknowledging a rivalry everyone knew was there, and has taken action to sanction it and starve it of critical technology.
Trump upended several longstanding assumptions regarding relations with China, assumptions that, upon closer examination, aren’t really justified.
China is America’s greatest rival, and the character of the Chinese Communist Party – paranoid, intolerant of dissent, insatiably hungry for territory, incredibly vindictive against any perceived slight – makes it a danger to those within its borders, as well as those outside it. President-elect Joe Biden should build on this new approach to check China – and he’d be able to do so much more effectively than Trump ever did. Whilst the Trump administration has been trying to form a united front with other countries to check China, Trump’s faithlessness, instability, and his tendency to undermine his allies have made this difficult. And whilst Trump and his minions try to portray themselves as champions of democracy and freedom against China’s abuses, these efforts fall flat coming from people who don’t seem to care a whit about either, and who would likely use allies and democrats as bargaining chips and sell them out to Beijing if the price was right. Biden can achieve much more with this approach because, like most other American presidents, he believes in these values, and in the importance of credibility and keeping faith.
Under Biden, the US is likely to continue with this more confrontational approach towards China. Biden called Xi Jinping “a thug” during the presidential debates and denounced him for his repression in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. He has vowed to restore American values in foreign policy and to advance democracy and human rights around the world. His pick for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has voiced similar sentiments, and warned that failing to challenge Chinese abuses in Hong Kong would encourage its aggression in Taiwan. More importantly, anti-China sentiment in the US (like in many other democratic countries) is the highest it’s been in decades, and is shared across Congress, The Pentagon, and the diplomatic corp. Notably, anti-China sentiment amongst the American people is at an historic high, with 73% of Americans reporting an unfavorable view of China. Even someone as cautious as former President Barack Obama recently said that if the US was not recovering from the financial crisis during his tenure, he’d have been much more contentious with China on trade. In a divided country, distrust and dislike of China is one of the few things people share, and is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
On Sexual Misconduct
Democrats staked out an indefensible position on sexual misconduct, with idiotic slogans like “Believe Women” and “Believe Survivors/Victims” becoming de facto Democratic policy. The first, insofar as it means “Believe women over men” (which it usually does), is blatantly sexist, the second is circular and presupposes what remains to be proven. They then used this policy to make an absolute circus out of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing in an attempt to derail his candidacy with flimsy allegations. This position was unjust, and, predictably, it came back to bite them later in the form of Tara Reade’s equally flimsy sexual misconduct allegations against Joe Biden.
Though doubtless well-intentioned, the Obama administration’s directives on sexual misconduct on campus, outlined in the infamous “Dear Colleague” letter, were disastrous. They lowered the standard of proof required to find someone guilty of sexual misconduct to the lowest evidentiary standard, widened the definition of sexual misconduct to cover virtually anything, and made it so third-party allegations could trigger an investigation, even if the alleged victim didn’t think there had been a violation. The Obama administration promoted a “single investigator” model, whereby schools appoint a staff member to act as detective, prosecutor, judge, and jury. The result was the almost complete elimination of due process for the accused, so much so that in an interview in February 2018, late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed that in some colleges, males accused of sexual misconduct were not being given a fair hearing, which she said contravened “one of the basic tenets of our system.” In August 2017, four feminist Harvard law professors – Jeannie Suk Gersen, Elizabeth Bartholet, Nancy Gertner, and Janet Halley – released a paper called “Fairness for All,” writing that procedures on campuses “are frequently so unfair as to be truly shocking.” For example, “some colleges and universities fail even to give students the complaint against them, or notice of the factual basis of the charges, the evidence gathered, or the identities of witnesses.”
To her credit, Trump’s Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, has worked to restore balance and due process to the system by rescinding the “Dear Colleague” directives, allowing universities to raise the standard of proof required for findings of sexual misconduct on campuses, narrowing the definition of harassment to what a reasonable person would consider to be such, and requiring universities to hold live hearings during which accusers and accused can be cross-examined. Rather than dismantling them, Democrats should build on these efforts and recommit themselves to the previously uncontroversial position that people should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, that someone’s gender does not make him or her more or less credible, and that everyone can and should be accorded due process.
Trump’s Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, has worked to restore balance and due process to the system.
How likely are Democrats to do this? The party’s overall stance suggests the answer is “Not very.” And yet, perhaps Joe Biden has learned something from Tara Reade’s allegations against him – and indeed, the way Democrats reacted (or didn’t) to those accusations suggests they quickly rediscovered the value of due process. One can only hope they’ll keep these lessons in mind going forward.
Though Joe Biden beat Donald Trump decisively in the election, the rest of the Democratic Party didn’t do near as well. Biden will have his work cut out for him trying to lead a divided government and a divided country through the many challenges it faces. To succeed, he’ll need to become the best president he can be, and to do that, he’ll have to be able to learn from the strengths of his defeated opponent, and to adopt the best ideas, wherever they happen to come from.