Deconstructing Trump’s Asia policy

By Andrew Sheng

U.S. President Donald Trump finally sounded presidential at his address to the U.S. Congress this week, after a tumultuous first month of sound and fury in tweets, executive orders and policy switches that left friends and foes around the world in total confusion. But listening and watching carefully President Trump’s showmanship, there is method in his seemingly erratic messages. They drive his opponents mad because they seem to disregard facts, logic or context. But, the simple tweets in 140 characters convey a message to his followers that he is delivering on what he promised — a Strong America and America First.

Trump is the first 21st century politician that is using 21st century technology to deliver his messages to the people, bypassing the traditional media, intellectuals, bureaucracy and establishment — those his chief strategist Steve Bannon defines as the “swamp.”

Trump’s tweets reduce complexity to simplicity — appealing to the gut. He diverts attention by making outrageous, politically incorrect points in order to gain a tactical advantage. This is not the classic dictum of “the medium is the message,” but rather “the message is the action”. Whether what is promised can be delivered is less relevant than whether the tweet strikes a political nerve. 21st century technology is all about instant gratification.

There is an ancient Chinese text, by an unknown author, called “36 Stratagems” that probably dates back to the Warring States period (475-221 BC) that can be used to interpret the truth of what Trump’s strategists intend to do. The first of the 36 stratagems is “Crossing the Sea by Fooling Heaven.” This parable is about how to achieve one’s objective by deluding the masses — by acting in the open, but diverting everyone’s attention. The theme of the stratagem is that the best secrets are those right in the open — you signal left and turn right. However outrageous, preposterous and seemingly illogical, Trump and his team have been consistent in one key message — he will deliver on his promises to his supporters. The more sound and fury there is against Trump, the more the media and the Democrats make the man.

Steve Bannon, the White House chief strategist, stirred emotions when he suggested in an interview with the press a fortnight ago about “deconstructing the administrative state.” There are three vertical buckets in his strategy — the delivery of stronger defense and homeland security, the economic nationalism of “re-constructing” trade arrangements — such as rejecting TPP — and thirdly, deconstruction of the administrative state in winding back regulations and the bureaucracy. All of these appeal to the right-wing of the Republican Party who reject the liberal order that has increased the size of government and the bureaucracy, creating more regulations and welfare that sapped the power of what Bannon called “enlightened capitalism” — the freedom to do business without the shackles of high taxes and big bureaucracy.