By Daniel Knorr
In the lead up to and immediate wake of the U.S. presidential election, commentators have frequently cast Donald Trump as an unprecedented political figure. Others have noted, though, that the President elect shares key traits with a wide variety of charismatic candidates and populist power holders. This pattern continues. Among current power holders, suggested analogues include Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte, and Xi Jinping. Historical comparisons have been more controversial, with both amateur and professional historians turning to two fascist figures whose personality cults flourished in the 1930s: Italy’s Benito Mussolini and Germany’s Adolf Hitler.
As an American doctoral student conducting research in China and watching the presidential election from a distance, I have been exposed to a double dose of references to the 1930s. This is because the media here has been saturated with commemorations of the 80th anniversary of the end of the Long March, which took place at one end of Eurasia while Mussolini and Hitler were in control of countries at the other. Toggling between the coverage of American politics and Chinese revolutionary history, I have been struck by echoes from the middle decades of the last half-century, but ones that tie Trump to a strongman leader who was neither European nor Communist — Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of Nationalist China. There are certainly important differences between Trump and Chiang, a man whose efforts to destroy the Communist Party precipitated the Long March and whose style and rhetoric China specialists James Carter and Jeffrey Wasserstrom have recently argued bear some striking resemblances to those of Xi Jinping. However, Trump and Chiang have enough in common—and not just the fact that both have been compared to Hitler—to make placing them side-by-side useful. At the very least, it broadens the scope of comparisons that are already being made.
National Restoration Rhetoric
Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” burned itself into the minds of supporters and detractors alike. In only four words it evoked a grand mythology of the country’s past and gestured toward a brighter future that could be achieved by returning the nation to its essential foundation. The title of Chiang’s best known piece of writing, his 1943 manifesto China’s Destiny (Zhongguo zhi mingyun) — a text which I have written about elsewhere at length in a chapter for a volume devoted to the year of the tract’s completion—was even more efficient, capturing in a single word, “destiny,” the essence of Chiang’s backward-looking optimism with regard to the future.
Both men faced criticism for their cavalier appropriation of the past. Critics have pointed out the hollowness, even insidiousness of Trump’s claim that America used to be greater. Was this, they have asked, during the first “four score and seven years” of our country’s history when African-Americans were legally enslaved? Or, perhaps, during the long years of Jim Crow that followed? Was it during the long stretch of U.S. history when women did not have the right to vote, there were no child labor laws, no minimum wage, and no basic protections for the water we drink and the air we breathe? Trump has yet to decisively answer these questions, and for his purposes they are best left unaddressed. This vague conjuring up of a time of past national greatness allows individuals to imagine for themselves what sort of America he has in mind; it assumes and takes advantage of a degree of ignorance about historical facts or lack of empathy for the historical experiences of members of groups other than the one to which the person doing the imagining belongs.
In China’s Destiny, Chiang used a very different tactic to achieve a similar end. He spent nearly half of his book talking about China’s history, which struck some readers as curious, given that it was written in a crisis-filled, war torn present, when the country Chiang led was locked in a life-and-death struggle with Japan. He also pointedly linked making China “great again” (not a term he used, but it captures the sense of those he did) to reconnecting with its traditions from before the dispiriting march of events of the last century. Intellectuals who witnessed Chiang’s glorification of Chinese tradition were deeply disturbed. Chiang criticized the iconoclasm, liberalism, and foreign influences of the New Culture Movement and May Fourth Movement of the 1910s, which intellectuals associated with political progressivism and personal liberation.
Discourses of Cultural and Ethnic Homogeneity
In addition to advocating a return to a point in the past, Chiang, like Trump, anchored his rhetoric of restoration in the ostensible cultural and ethnic homogeneity of his country. The ethnonationalism Chiang espoused in China’s Destiny posited a single biological and cultural origin of the entire Chinese nation in ancient times, with various groups branching off from there, yet nevertheless sharing a common spirit and destiny. This vision incorporated ethnic groups, such as Tibetans and Mongolians, as junior members of a great Chinese family-nation. Reiterating their subordination, Chiang refused to call them “nationalities” or “ethnicities” (minzu), instead referring to them as “branches” or “stocks” (zongzu). There was little room for ethnic or cultural diversity in Chiang’s vision of the Chinese nation since its ultimate destiny was to return to being a unified body, held together by intermarriage and traditional cultural values, especially loyalty (zhong) and filial piety (xiao).
Trump’s ethnonationalist leanings have lacked the systematic nature of Chiang’s but have been no less a cause for concern. An important difference, though, is that while the thrust of Chiang’s rhetoric was to expand the scope of the “Chinese” nation, Trump has emphasized limiting the definition of who is welcome in the U.S. Whether promising a wall to keep out Mexicans, proposing a ban on Muslim immigration, or questioning the competency of a judge based on his ethnic background, Trump has fanned ethnic exclusivism.
Trump’s personal beliefs about the racial and cultural make-up of America are difficult to discern beneath thick layers of politicking and rhetoric. In his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, he describes the country as needing a president who will foster diversity. He repeatedly decries hate crimes, particularly the 1998 lynching of James Byrd. This could, though, have been in part ghost writer-assisted political posturing. The Trump of 2016, by contrast, has made numerous offensive and inflammatory statements, tolerated and encouraged violence and threats of it at his rallies, and repeatedly retweeted white nationalists, giving them free publicity – all with little sign of remorse. But could this also be political posturing, albeit in a far more sinister form?
Despite the strident rhetoric in China’s Destiny, Chiang was forced to adopt far more conciliatory policies toward at least some border regions and peoples. Similarly, Trump may choose or be forced to adopt seemingly generous policies toward minorities that in no way will nullify the ill effects of his rhetoric. Even if, for example, he does not succeed in suspending immigration from Muslim countries or drastically increasing surveillance of Muslim communities in the U.S., the threat itself will already have done considerable damage. Additionally, even while Trump formally disclaims racism he continues to facilitate the migration of racist ideology into the political mainstream. On the same day he disavowed hate crimes committed by his supporters, he appointed as chief strategist and Senior Counselor Steve Bannon, the former chairman of Breitbart News, which Bannon himself has described as the “platform for the alt-right.” While Trump has disclaimed support by the KKK, David Duke has described Bannon as “basically creating the ideological aspects of where we’re going.” We must continue to ask, then, whether the office of the presidency will temper Trump’s rhetoric, as some have hoped, or if it will instead provide legitimacy for the growth of ethnonationalist ideology.
Blaming Foreigners (with Open Hands)
From the beginning of his campaign, Trump has placed the blame for America’s problems, especially economic ones, at the feet of foreign actors. He is, of course, hardly the only politician to make such accusations. (Blaming China for the “loss” of American jobs is practically our nation’s political pastime.) Trump, however, has taken this recrimination to a different level. While other politicians have pointed to illegal immigration as an economic and national security problem, Trump went so far as to suggest – in his campaign announcement no less – that the Mexican government itself has intentionally dispatched its undesirable citizens to the U.S. Moreover, Trump has called into question some of this country’s most cherished strategic partnerships, accusing allies in East Asia and Western Europe of failing to pay their way to a safer world. This is hardly a new calling card for him. In The America We Deserve Trump proposes removing American troops from Europe and using the $50 billion he says would be saved to rebuild the country’s schools.
Chiang found himself in both a stronger and more awkward position from which to criticize foreign countries. The effects of foreign imperialism on China were far more negatively impactful than anything the U.S. has experienced. Chiang, however, blamed essentially the entirety of China’s ills on imperialism. He included all kinds of western ideological influences as wholly negative. Chiang’s particular scorn for British imperialism and liberalism seemed inconsistent with his present alliance with and dependence on the U.S. and Britain. Critics pointed out that Chiang seemed more conciliatory toward the political ideology of his enemies – Japan and Germany – than his friends. Pro-Japanese writers went so far as to praise him for his candor! Similarly, Trump’s vocal appreciation of Vladimir Putin and even the violent repression of protesters in China in 1989 has led to raised eyebrows and outright condemnation. Are these comments merely an unexpected turn of the tendency toward shrill rhetoric about foreign threats common in American electoral politics? Or do they represent a propensity to identify with authoritarian governments and an unwillingness to confront endogenous roots of the country’s problems that are particular to Trump?
A defining feature of authoritarian governments around the world is intolerance for criticism from the press. This certainly characterized Chiang’s government and manifested itself through ordering the closure of offending media outlets and the assassinations of his critics. Chiang’s government even censored foreign reporting from China during the war.
Trump has not yet been in a position to systematically repress the media. He has, however, publicly feuded with various media outlets, including both Fox News and the New York Times. During his campaign he went so far as to revoke the credentials of The Washington Post, which he described as “phony and dishonest.” Additionally, he has a long record of threatening lawsuits against those who criticize him. His anti-media campaign rhetoric has fueled his supporters’ open distrust of the press and shocking efforts to intimidate reporters in-person and online.
It would be unfair to suggest that Trump’s relationship with the press has been on par with Chiang’s persecution of even moderate dissidents. Perhaps Trump has a genuinely more accommodating attitude to critical media coverage than Chiang, however little this would say. Trump, however, has not had as many tools and as much power at his disposal to quash criticism as Chiang had. How, then, will he utilize his position as president?
While striking a more conciliatory tone in the immediate wake of the election, Trump has quickly reverted back to campaign form, launching a series of caustic and factually inaccurate salvos on Twitter at The New York Times for its coverage of his transition team. Trump’s actions during the campaign and in the days following the election suggest he may also adopt more passive strategies to avoid accountability to the media, such as refusing to release his tax returns and evading the press corps. Will Trump continue and expand on this pattern of evasion and even repression? What tools will he have to do so once he assumes the presidency and what institutional checks will he encounter?
Cultivating Family Loyalty
Family ties are obviously an important part of American political history and no less so in 2016, which saw Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton seek a post that was previously held by their father and brother (Bush) and husband (Clinton). The central role played by Trump’s family members in his campaign has been underscored by his appointment of three children and one son-in-law to his transition executive committee. He is also reportedly seeking a security clearance for his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. (Trump denies he has requested a “top level security clearance” for his children.) The potentially unprecedented role of his close family members in his administration only exacerbates concerns about conflicts of interest that would arise from his children managing his business affairs while he serves as president.
Family was also crucially important to Chiang’s power. His family connections were, however, forged by marriage into the Soong family. The most famous members of the family were the three sisters: Ai-ling, Ching-ling, and Mei-ling. Ai-ling married China’s richest man, H.H. Kung, who served in various high-level positions in the Nationalist government. Ching-ling married Sun Yat-sen, from whom Chiang inherited leadership of the Nationalist party. Mei-ling married Chiang himself, serving as a trusted adviser, translator, and diplomat. The sisters’ brother, T.V. Soong, was also an important member of the Nationalist government.
Throughout the campaign Trump has cast himself as a political outsider and criticized politicians for being beholden to special interests rather than American citizens. In The America We Deserve he writes, “Loyalty counts for very little in Washington. I’d like to see it restored. Loyalty is a version of your love for your family. I feel loyalty not only to my friends but also to my city and my country. By my definition, one of the family values is patriotism.” Trump would have us think that his deep loyalty to family means he will be loyal to the country as well. However, his words and actions give reason to be concerned about his conflation of national and family loyalty. Can he maintain an appropriate distance between family, party, and country both while managing his administration and responding to critics of one or the other?
An Important Difference and a Final Question
Unlike Chiang and many other authoritarian leaders, Trump has not had a national-level Leninist-style party at his disposal. In fact, for much of the election Trump publicly sparred with leading figures of the Republican Party, despite being its nominee. He has garnered support from fringe groups, some of which he has disclaimed (like the KKK). But up to now, Trump’s influence over these groups seems to be rhetorical and not institutional.
In other words, Trump’s relationship to party structure has been very different from that of Chiang Kai-shek, who inherited leadership of the Nationalist Party from Sun Yat-sen. Chiang’s relationship with his own party was hardly straightforward, but he was able to use his position within it to consolidate his personal power. Chiang was successful enough that by the time China’s Destiny was published in 1943, he could talk about loyalty to president, party, and nation as essentially synonymous.
Here the more appropriate Chinese comparison from middle of the last century to turn to when thinking about Trump may be Mao Zedong—Chiang’s great rival. At the beginning of the Long March it was hardly a foregone conclusion that Mao would play a dominant role in shaping the future of the Communist Party. He was an important figure, but his advocacy of peasant revolution and offensive guerrilla warfare were not in the mainstream of orthodox Marxism or Soviet advising. The crisis faced by the Communists at the time, however, afforded Mao the opportunity to extend his influence within and through the party.
Mao’s example shows how the relationship between charismatic leaders and party structures can change over time and through important events. The workings of political parties are not necessarily an attractive topic for investigation, regardless of one’s political opinions. Now, however, the entire nation has an interest in how Trump’s relationship to the Republican Party and numerous other groups develops. This will help determine both the breadth and duration of his effect on American democracy. Looking back to China in the era of the Long March does not provide any answers as to what will happen during a Trump presidency, but thinking about the experiences of both Chiang and Mao some eighty years ago does offer food for thought as we contemplate what comes next.