Trump’s impetuous order earlier this week to close the Chinese consulate in Houston comes at the end of a long period of saber-rattling. Yet by escalating tensions with China so dramatically—and with so little thought of how this could cascade into a series of unintended consequences—it has to rank as one of the more extraordinary foreign policy decisions of recent times.
Yes, the Chinese government has done many despicable things over the past few years, from detaining Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in concentration camps, to imposing a horrific national security law on Hong Kong that shreds that city’s cherished autonomy. Officials under both Democratic and Republican administrations say that China has also stolen intellectual property from American companies, including government contractors. But does anyone seriously believe that Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have suddenly been converted to the cause of human rights? Does anyone believe this is about the sanctity of trade agreements and copyright norms?
The sudden urgency to shutter the Houston consulate is clearly about domestic politics—about presenting China as a larger-than-life villain, and Trump as the strongman counterweight. It is, above all, about distracting the American voting public from the administration’s beyond-useless response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and blaming China for all of the woes that have accompanied these plague months.
Of course, the Signal is that this stunt is leading to a conflict that could quickly spiral out of control. Chinese officials have already begun the process of retaliation, and are reportedly planning to shut down a US consulate in the city of Chengdu. That’s the sort of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsion that was a hallmark of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. It’s also the sort of escalation that a Trump-led administration is uniquely ill-equipped to handle with nuance and finesse. There’s little to prevent this new Cold War from getting hot, and that’s a deeply unsettling prospect.
If anyone’s in doubt that this administration believes violent conflict will serve its political ends in the run-up to the election, just look at Portland, Ore. There, federal agents—allegedly sent in to protect federal monuments—have doubled down on a strategy of occupation and assaults on protesters. This is despite the fact that local officials keep telling them that the presence of shadowy forces wearing military fatigues is only making a volatile situation worse.
Trump has made it clear that he will also “surge” federal agents into Chicago, Albuquerque, and other cities, ostensibly to tackle violent crime. Again, this isn’t about a sudden concern for the well-being of poor people living in poor neighborhoods and surrounded by violence, economic collapse, and inadequate housing. Trump, wealth-fetishist that he is, has only ever used these issues as props for his demagoguery. He does, however, care very much about framing cities—especially those with Democratic mayors—as petri dishes of criminal behavior. He does care about pitching a snarling, election-season message to white, suburban voters.
The result is an ugly, Noisy absurdity. There’s not even a pretense of consistency when it comes to law and order. In one breath, Trump wishes well Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged accomplice Ghislaine Maxwell, or announces that he is commuting the sentence of his friend Roger Stone. In another, fine-tuning his George Wallace–styled rhetoric, he denounces protesters and claims they are part of a lawless, far-left conspiracy.
Speaking of “lawless”: Trump reportedly urged the US ambassador to the United Kingdom to lobby the Brits to move the British Open golf tournament to one of Trump’s Scottish golf courses. After all, what should the US diplomatic establishment be doing other than turning diplomats into caddies and international relations into one big payday for the Trump clan?
Continuing along that vein of official lawlessness, Trump has recently solicited advice from legal scholar John Yoo, who achieved notoriety during George Bush’s presidency by scripting the legal memo that provided a rationale for the torture program. Yoo should have been banished from the public sphere for his shameful torture memos. Instead, he ended up with a plush gig teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, law school. Now, with the election just around the corner, Yoo is busy ingratiating himself with the current administration: He argues that the Supreme Court’s recent DACA ruling—in which justices said the administration would have needed to go through the Administrative Procedure Act to revoke the program—actually means that Trump can sign a bunch of big-picture, probably illegal executive orders, because the Supreme Court will mandate a multiyear process to overturn them.
Armed with such nonsensical legal advice, administration officials said earlier this week that Trump would sign a series of executive orders to fundamentally overhaul the immigration and health care systems, through diktat rather than legislation. He has already signed an absurd presidential memo, aimed at preventing undocumented immigrants from participating in the US Census. It’s absurd because the Supreme Court has already ruled that the Census cannot include a question about immigration status, making it impossible for Census-takers to know whether respondents are undocumented—but the memo is a harbinger of what’s coming down the road.
Trump is going to push every legal boundary he can to fire up his base between now and November. It’s all he’s got left—given double-digit unemployment, the surging Covid-19 infection rate, the worrying signs that the housing market is starting to soften, and the growing realization that the economy is going to take a far bigger, and longer, hit from the pandemic than was initially expected.
Over the coming weeks, expect each new executive order to be uglier and crueler than the one before. Expect the federal authorities surging into cities to create a confrontational spectacle and to poke at the flames of civic discord. And expect these actions to be so shoddily crafted that they ultimately serve only as distractions, Noise layered atop more Noise, rather than as long-term policy resets.