Yet in the throes of this hugely consequential moment, Donald Trump, no stranger to sounding off on the issues of the day, has mostly been mute. At times he seemed to condemn the people in the streets clamoring for more self-government, suggesting the demonstrations amounted to a criminal act. At least one foreign diplomat told us he is confounded by the administration’s position, sifting through the various statements from Trump, National Security Adviser John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hoping to find clarity. A nation that itself broke free from colonial control has, under Trump, struggled to come up with a clear, consistent position on a massive demonstration from people chafing at Chinese rule.
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Trump has only become more vocal in recent days amid bouts of violence between protesters and police and an ominous buildup of Chinese security forces along the border with Hong Kong. (There’s already a Chinese military garrison in Hong Kong.) Even then, however, he’s spoken out with nowhere near the fervor he devotes to discussing Chinese trade practices or, for that matter, the size of the crowds showing up at his rallies.
The seismic developments in Hong Kong mark another instance in which Trump has had to reckon with competing imperatives that may be irreconcilable: pursuing his trade agenda, and playing the American president’s traditional role of promoting democratic ideals.
Trump confronted a similar dilemma with Saudi Arabia. Rather than punish the Saudi leadership over the kingdom’s role in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump said that arms sales were ultimately too important to jeopardize relations with a rich ally.
What his approach to Hong Kong has laid bare is the extent to which Trump diverges from his predecessors in modern American history, who tended to instinctively embrace the forces of freedom, so central to America’s own founding, even if they often failed to make good on their lofty rhetoric in practice.
That’s not the way Trump is wired. What moves him personally is America’s economic growth, which he sees as a zero-sum proposition: measured by trade deficits, GDP, jobs numbers, and, perhaps most important, the stock market. In 1990, he gave an interview that revealed his thinking about clashes between authoritarian leaders and protest movements looking for democratic freedoms. His admiration was for the crackdown. China’s massacre of civilians in Tiananmen Square the previous year was “vicious,” he declared at the time, but it showed “the power of strength,” which the United States needed more of.
Since the demonstrations erupted in Hong Kong several months ago, Trump has put forward a muddled message about the most overt challenge to Chinese authority since Tiananmen Square. For a spell, he and advisers such as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross characterized the ferment in the territory as an internal Chinese matter and flirted with a pro-Beijing stance. Trump used the Chinese government’s preferred term of “riots,” and stated that China and Hong Kong would “have to deal with that themselves” and “don’t need advice.”