Fate sometimes has an acute sense of irony. This morning, the political donor and philanthropist David Koch died. Koch’s father was an early, prominent supporter of the limited-government, red-baiting John Birch Society. Koch ran for vice president as a Libertarian in 1980, but he and his brother Charles eventually shifted their focus to pushing the Republican Party in an aggressively small-government, low-regulation direction. They had remarkable success, but had serious disagreements with the current Republican president, Donald Trump.
The same morning Koch died, Trump tweeted:
… better off without them. The vast amounts of money made and stolen by China from the United States, year after year, for decades, will and must STOP. Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China, including bringing ...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 23, 2019
… all deliveries of Fentanyl from China (or anywhere else!). Fentanyl kills 100,000 Americans a year. President Xi said this would stop - it didn’t. Our Economy, because of our gains in the last 2 1/2 years, is MUCH larger than that of China. We will keep it that way!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 23, 2019
The phrase that leaps from this meandering jeremiad is this: Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China. In his ongoing struggle against China, Trump has begun to ever more resemble his rival Xi Jinping—an authoritarian presiding over a command economy. David Koch isn’t buried yet, but his father, Fred, is surely spinning in his grave.
As is often the case when Trump tweets something detached from reality, it is difficult to tell how serious he is. His defenders often try to write off his most bizarre remarks as jokes, though there’s no sign this one is meant to be humorous: It’s in the middle of an extended rant, and it fits with his other statements about China and trade.
Even if Trump is serious, does he really think he can mandate the behavior of private business via Twitter missive? Who knows! Trump has shown enough autocratic impulse, and enough ignorance of how the government and law work, that it’s impossible to rule that out. It’s also possible, though, that Trump knows he can’t actually decree such a move, but understands the power of saying it anyway, both as public relations and as a way to pressure companies to act out of fear of presidential reprisal.
Trump has demonstrated a yearning for the tools of a command economy since his campaign, when he repeatedly promised to keep American jobs in the country. In November 2016, when he was still president-elect, he bullied Carrier, the air-conditioner company, to cancel the closing of a plant in Indiana. The move horrified small-government conservatives, many of whom had opposed Trump during the election, but he was just getting started. As his trade war has hurt American agriculture, the president has undertaken a $16 billion subsidy program for farmers. This week, he also publicly lambasted car companies for reaching an agreement with the state of California to set emissions standards stricter than his administration’s.
Trump has done all of this even while attempting to paint his 2020 Democratic opponents as a bunch of socialists. Calling the president’s actions “socialist” is a bit misleading, because they don’t really seem to be aimed at creating a more equitable redistribution of wealth. The Carrier rescue turned out to be a sham. The farm bailouts seem to be largely flowing to farmers who are already wealthy. But they extend government control of the economy in ways that the Republican Party has traditionally fiercely opposed. GOP officials attacked President Barack Obama as a socialist for his bailouts of the automotive industry and for the Affordable Care Act, but Obama didn’t go around issuing peremptory, unilateral commands to all American businesses.
Perhaps the decree is just a fleeting notion for Trump, but in the past the administration has sometimes gone to great lengths to turn seemingly outlandish declarations into established policy. Trump promised to ban Muslims from entering the United States during the 2016 election, and the White House worked through multiple iterations of a policy to bar some Muslims before finding one that passed legal muster. More recently, the administration has tried multiple ways to legally justify family separations and the internment of immigrant children at the border.
Trump’s tweets round out a week in which his statements have been stunning even for him. Among other things, the president referred to himself as “the chosen one” to deal with China; retweeted remarks that likened him to “the king of Israel” and “the second coming of God”; called American Jews who vote for Democrats “disloyal,” reviving an old anti-Semitic dual-loyalty slur; and abruptly canceled a state trip to Denmark after the Danish government indicated that Greenland was not for sale. Moments before he issued his command to American businesses, Trump wondered whether “our bigger enemy” is China’s Xi or Jay Powell, the chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve.
On its face, the question is absurd. But perhaps it’s no surprise that Trump sees more kinship with the Chinese autocrat than with the American central banker.