At Wednesday’s press conference at Trump Tower in New York, his first since winning the election, Donald Trump was grilled by reporters about allegations that Russia meddled in the election to help him defeat Hillary Clinton. The president-elect’s response?
As far as hacking, I think it was Russia. But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people. And I—I can say that you know when—when we lost 22 million names and everything else that was hacked recently, they didn’t make a big deal out of that. That was something that was extraordinary. That was probably China...
Within 90 days, we will be coming up with a major report on hacking defense, how do we stop this new phenomena—fairly new phenomena because the United States is hacked by everybody. That includes Russia and China and everybody—everybody. OK...
We have to work something out, but it’s not just Russia. Take a look at what’s happened. You don’t report it the same way; 22 million accounts were hacked in this country by China. And that’s because we have no defense. That’s because we’re run by people that don’t know what they’re doing...
But Russia and other countries—and other countries, including China, which has taken total advantage of us economically, totally advantage of us in the South China Sea by building their massive fortress, total. Russia, China, Japan, Mexico, all countries will respect us far more, far more than they do under past administrations.
It’s no surprise that Trump would employ this rhetorical move. While his friendliness toward President Vladimir Putin has raised hackles in his own party, particularly among Senate hawks like Lindsey Graham and John McCain, Trump is on more firm footing with China, since most Republicans are also wary of the country. A hardline stance on China is Trump’s way to keep the party united behind him on foreign policy, and moreover, it helps him advance his case for trade protectionism, as he cast China during his campaign as the biggest threat to the American economy.
Beyond trade, Trump’s pairing of Russia and China points to a potential revolution in U.S. foreign policy. Since the Nixon administration, which started the process of normalizing diplomatic relations with mainland China, the U.S. has often used China as a check against Russian power. This was particularly true during the 1970s and 1980s, but to this day, despite tensions over issues like island building in the South China Sea, America remains closer to China than to Russia, especially economically. Trump would upend this dynamic and create a world where America and Russia are the dominant superpowers, working together to hod China in check.
It’s not clear, though, that Putin is on board with this policy. The Russian president clearly wants a thaw in relations with the U.S., but he’s also been assiduously courting China as an ally. Putin might prefer the U.S. to China, or he might be planning to use China and America against each other. After all, Trump isn’t the only world leader who’s jockeying for leverage in deal-making.
But there’s another problem with Trump’s policy that has nothing to do with economic or military power. As is often the case with Trump, it has to do with race.
Trump’s potential realignment of international alliances would create a global racial division, with the two largest white nations joined together against Asia, as Trump has also targeted longtime ally Japan. His rhetoric often goes beyond concerns about trade and slips into xenophobic stereotypes about crafty foreigners undermining America. A famous Trump tweet from 2012 is a classic example of this conspiratorial mindset: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
As Jonathan Alter noted in The Daily Beast, Trump reflexively sees even Asian Americans as foreign:
But [Trump] can’t help using a harsh “Ch” when pronouncing “China” that makes it sound like a curse, mocking the accents of “smart” Asian negotiators (“We want deal”), and assuming Asian-Americans are foreigners.
When Joseph Choe, a 20-year-old Harvard economics major, got up at a New Hampshire event last fall to correct him on his false claim that South Korea paid “nothing” to the United States for its defense, Trump cut him off:
“Are you from South Korea?”
“I’m not. I was born in Texas, raised in Colorado,” Choe replied.
Alter sees Trump’s thinking about Asia as rooted in the tradition of “Yellow Peril” xenophobia, an argument also made by Tez Clark in Vox.
The idea of a U.S.-Russian alliance against China is a heterodox one, with little purchase in mainstream foreign policy. The few eccentric voices who have advocated for this idea have usually framed it in racial terms. In his 1970 book, The Passing of the Modern Age, the conservative historian John Lukacs wrote, “Bismarck was supposed to have said that the most important fact of the twentieth century would be that Americans speak English; it is not impossible that the most important condition of the next hundred years might be that the Russians are, after all, white.”
Both here and elsewhere, Lukacs argued that as white nations, America and Russia might profitably work together to prop each other up against a planet where they were a racial minority. The right-wing science-fiction writers Jerry Pournelle (an admirer of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini) and Larry Niven pursued a similar argument in their CoDominium novels, a long-running series of novels that started in 1973 and imagines a world where the U.S. and the Soviet Union work together to govern an unruly planet.
The late novelist Gore Vidal is usually described as a radical, but his foreign policy views were rooted in the America First nationalism of Charles Lindbergh. So it’s not surprising that he supported a policy of uniting with Russia against Asian countries like China and Japan. In 1986, Vidal argued in The Nation: “For America to survive economically in the coming Sino-Japanese world, an alliance with the Soviet Union is a necessity. After all, the white race is the minority race and if the two great powers of the Northern Hemisphere don’t band together, we are going to end up as farmers—or, worse, mere entertainment—for more than one billion grimly efficient Asiatics.”
It’s possible that Trump doesn’t see the international arena in such starkly racial terms. Perhaps his main concern is trade or military power. Yet, we can’t ignore the racial implications of Trump’s anti-Asian framing of global politics, particularly since his domestic agenda has led to a mainstreaming of white nationalism. In 1906, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that “the color line belts the world.” If Trump follows through with his foreign policy vision, those words could take on a frightening new relevance.