×

Here’s why Trump’s tough talk on China just might work

Donald Trump
Dominick Reuter | AFP | Getty Images
Donald Trump

When President-elect Donald Trump tweets out a series of comments harshly criticizing China's trade and military policies, we're not seeing some kind of undisciplined self-implosion. What we're seeing is the beginning of Trump's presidential strategy: Pursuing a selfish self-interest for public adulation, while dumping political correctness and devotion to long-held political philosophies.

In short, the Trump era looks like it could be a truly post-ideological presidency. And history says it just might work.

President-elect Donald Trump seemed to get a real rush out of the Carrier deal last week that kept 1,100 American jobs in Indiana. The very next day, Trump took the controversial congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese president. And, two days after that phone call, Trump further tweaked the Chinese with a series of tweets attacking Beijing's economic and military policies. These events seem like they're hardly a coincidence but more likely Trump sending a message to China that he will be a tough negotiator.

Expect this kind of thing to continue because Trump really likes this image as a protector of American jobs and interests. And he's someone who has seen over and over again that saying things that many people perceive as dangerous is precisely what benefits him the most politically.

Say the terms "selfish self interest" or "quest for adulation" out loud and everyone within earshot is likely to think you're denigrating anyone who pursues such strategies. But as the late Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman taught us better than anyone else before or since: Every great achievement in human history has come by the result of individuals pursuing their separate or even selfish self interests.


"Now, bombastic tweets and all, he's actually speaking a language of negotiation the Chinese government understands quite well..."

Trump made it clear during the entire campaign that he was obviously more than willing to dump decades of Republican trade and diplomatic policy. And with his Chinese comments and call with Taiwan's president over the weekend, he's flouting a policy set by Republican President Richard Nixon that indeed became an ideology embraced by both parties for 44 years.

How is China responding? Not surprisingly, it's behaving like the pragmatic, minimally ideological, and selfishly self-interested nation it's been for more than those last 44 years and counting. For example, China hasn't really been a Communist country for a very long time. It eschewed that economic ideology in favor of the massive growth of its quasi-capitalist system has provided.

So no one should be surprised that Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang took a very restrained stance Monday by saying only that China-U.S. trade has been of "mutual benefit" and that both sides "must exert efforts based on the important principles of relations between the two countries." Those don't sound like the words of a government that will stand on ideological ceremony and refuse to deal with President Trump in the coming years.

Plus, the Trump who loves the results of the Carrier deal so much will likely be very happy to give and take quite a bit with the Chinese in order to save more American jobs and companies. It sounds counterintuitive, but even the supposedly angry tweeting Trump, is someone they can understand. He wants to make deals, and so do they.

We've had presidents in the recent past who abandoned their party's ideologies to make good deals. And in those cases, they did so with plenty of selfish self-interest in mind. Go back to Nixon's visit to China in 1972 as a great example. Yes, now it's an entrenched establishment belief that the U.S. should consider the Beijing government the sole representative of our "one China" policy. But Nixon's move set us on that path despite the fury of anti-Communist ideologues who had championed Nixon's entire political career. Love or hate that decision, there is no denying the U.S. ties to Beijing were a major reason for the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union two decades later. And the immediate result is that Nixon's visit to China helped propel him to a massive re-election landslide just a few months later. In other words, a break from ideology in favor of America's and Nixon's non-ideological and selfish self interests, paid off all around.

President Bill Clinton got a similar electoral windfall when he basically committed liberal heresy and agreed to welfare reform and cuts to capital gains taxes. The economy soared in response and Clinton won a comfortable re-election win. By contrast, President Obama didn't break with liberal philosophies when he had the chance with his decisions to block the Keystone Pipeline and agree to some form of tort reform in the Affordable Care Act. And it's not a coincidence that Mr. Obama's 2012 re-election was by a smaller margin than his 2008 win and the economy did not soar like it could have had the gridlock in Washington ended even on those few occasions.

In the post-Obama world, Trump showed how unimportant strict conservative Republican ideology really is to the voters by trouncing all of the more strictly conservative Republicans he faced in the primary. Then he proved that repeatedly breaking with liberal orthodoxy over politically correct speech wasn't lethal in the general election after all. Now, bombastic tweets and all, he's actually speaking a language of negotiation the Chinese government understands quite well by sending out an opening offer of sorts.

This is why Trump's real devotion to advancing his own popularity or his legend could work out better for everyone. The public, and the voters specifically, have a funny way of showing less allegiance to ideology and more interest in more persuasive results. Did the liberals abandon Bill Clinton in 1996 for signing welfare reform? No. Did the anti-Communists bolt from Nixon in 1972 because of his new relationship with Beijing? Also no. Trump knows that "bashing" China in a few tweets may be diplomatic and/or liberal/conservative heresy, but he also knows the voters won't care if it results in saving jobs or better trade deals. And the Chinese should see that the Carrier deal proves that even very small scale job saving news may all that Trump needs or wants. That's a win/win/win... at least in the short term.

So don't be surprised if Trump's latest controversial tweets on China, just like his comments about companies like Carrier, result in some kind of positive deal with Beijing.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.