US President Donald Trump's is an unconventional leader, to say the least. Photo: AFP / Saul Loeb

Economic and geopolitical logic would suggest that Donald Trump could not and should not win another term as president of the United States. His trade wars, though they have enriched a few via the stock market, generally hurt the US economy and the people who supported him, if recent data from organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the United Nations are an indication.

The trade conflicts, those against China in particular, helped cause the US economic growth rate to fall from more than 3% in 2018 to around 2% in 2019, according to the World Bank. The US Federal Reserve revealed that the economy had lost more than $45 billion and manufacturing activities had declined since 2018.

What’s more, the trade wars increased farm bankruptcies and the number of people falling into poverty, according to UN and US government statistics. 

Furthermore, Trump’s populist policies have divided the country – and the world – more than at any time since the civil-rights movement and the Cold War era. His anti-immigration polices (targeting non-European countries) and calling Mexicans “rapists and murderers” brought out the worst of American society, raising the number of hate crimes against non-whites and Jews.

The “third red scare,” suspecting every ethnic Chinese of being a potential spy, culminated in visa restrictions for Chinese scholars and students. The coronavirus that causes Covid-19, which originated in China, added fuel to the anti-Chinese fire, as shown by a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece portraying China as “the sick man of Asia,” a racially charged slur that originated in the 19th century to insult and look down on the Chinese as an inferior race. 

Though the author of that article, Walter Russell Mead, a New York-based Hudson Institute scholar and Bard College professor, might not be a bigot, the fact that the WJS did not apologize and delete it from the paper’s website suggested that many Americans read the article and possibly harbor anti-Chinese sentiments.

The major difference between the elite and fringe groups in expressing their bigotry is style. The elites use “freedom of speech” to disguise “hate literature,” while fringe groups express prejudicial feelings with their fists.

So anti-China feelings were never far below the surface, explaining why the majority of Americans support anti-China policies and the recent coronavirus outbreak was able to trigger open racial prejudice against Chinese people. Though there is no indication that China is planning to invade the US or is using Covid-19 to infect Americans, the fear that it might was enough. 

However, American policies under Trump did not just pick on China. He imposed tariffs on European- and Canadian-produced steel and aluminum for “national security” reasons. But Europe and Canada are staunch allies, so the real reason might have been to protect the US steel industry.

But China is the main target, perhaps because it is a “near power” economically, technologically and militarily. The Chinese technology giant Huawei suddenly became a “Trojan horse” because its fifth-generation (5G) technology and telecom equipment were seen as pushing US companies out. China’s Belt and Road Initiative seems to be supplanting US influence in all corners of globe. China also surpassed the US as the world’s biggest economy in terms of purchasing power parity.

Perhaps to stop the Chinese advances, the US government is forcing or coercing countries to take sides. However, that puts those countries in a “no-win” situation, because joining the US would jeopardize economic growth, since most are dependent on Chinese trade and investment. Those joining the US against China could incur a security risk because they would be the battlegrounds for future US-China wars. Excluding Chinese-made telecom equipment would not only increase costs but delay 5G development for at least one or two years, according to some experts. 

More important, barring Chinese telecom firms into the US and preventing US firms from selling chips and other products to China is like cutting off the nose to spite the face. The US government has to compensate rural service providers with billions of taxpayer dollars to replace their Huawei equipment, taking away money from social programs and reducing consumption. Barring US firms from selling products to Chinese counterparts risks financial viability.

Huawei, on the other hand, actually enjoyed an 18% increase in revenue in 2019. Equally if not more embarrassing to the US government is that no country is excluding Huawei from its 5G rollout, other than a small number of staunch allies such as Australia, Japan and Poland. 

So why are a growing number of Americans supporting Trump? One reason might be that his slogan of “Make America great again” resonates with many middle- and working- class voters. Many Americans seem to believe (with some justification) that his predecessors and the political and business establishments have sold them out. In the pursuit of higher returns on investment, businesses decided to relocate production abroad and automate jobs at home. However, neither the government nor big business put in place sufficient remedial retraining programs to provide alternative employment opportunities for those who were displaced by globalization and innovation.

Another reason might be that Trump was seen as a strong leader looking after the little guy, promising to bring jobs and manufacturing back to America. After years of struggling to climb out of the deep recession created by the 2008 financial crisis, Trump’s rhetoric made American workers and the middle class feel good.

Furthermore, blaming China is easy and politically rewarding because of years of “subjective information” fanned by the media, politicians, pundits and scholars. The vast majority of Americans have never traveled to or know anything about China, and without alternative sources of information, many have been led to believe the “yellow peril” rhetoric about stealing American technology, manipulating the yuan to gain an export advantage, and carrying out other “unfair” trade practices or misdeeds. 

Indeed, saying anything positive about Communist China is ridiculed or severely criticized not only by the opposition Democratic Party, but also by the media and pundits. Mike Bloomberg, for example, was criticized a few years ago for saying Chinese President Xi Jinping is not a dictator. His opponents have used that comment to denounce Bloomberg as a “commie stooge” or worse. Bloomberg’s comment on Xi might not be the major reason dooming his election bid, but it certainly won’t help him.

Furthermore, it is not clear that any Democratic Party candidate could defeat Trump in the coming election. Bernie Sanders, the current frontrunner, is seen and portrayed by some as a “socialist” because he wants to bring in universal health care and free college education for all Americans. Joe Biden is deemed “damaged goods” because of his son’s  alleged “illegal” business activities in Ukraine and China. Elizabeth Warren is declining in the polls. What’s more, the Democratic candidates are fighting one another in their public debates. 

So yes, Trump could well win a second term. But whether a second Trump administration would be as divisive or erratic as his first or that a Democrat president would be any better is unclear. And unlike many of his predecessors, Trump never started a war. That might not be the case if Bernie Sanders is elected president, since he has vowed military aid to Taiwan if mainland China attacks it. 

Whether Sanders is just playing the China card to win the election or is serious about his promise, his campaign commitment could embolden the Taiwan government to pursue de jure independence, potentially triggering a Chinese invasion and ensuring a US-China war. 

Ken Moak taught economic theory, public policy and globalization at university level for 33 years. He co-authored a book titled China’s Economic Rise and Its Global Impact in 2015. His second book, Developed Nations and the Economic Impact of Globalization, was published by Palgrave McMillan Springer.