Serial deadbeat Donald Trump is getting a lot of attention by arguing for a trade war with China, but his strategy sounds mighty familiar. The Donald, whose ability to draw credulous media coverage is matched only by his ability to destroy the wealth of his investors, isn't opposed to the Asiatic hordes; he's just aware of them, and has been for more than two decades, since the heady days when Trump was on his first wife and America was on its first Oriental trade nemesis.
Can you imagine Ronald Reagan making that statement? Can you imagine almost any president making that statement?
China is succeeding. They are rebuilding their country off our money. I mean, they're—we are making so many products in China, paying China so much money for those products, that you go to these Chinese cities, they are rebuilding cities and they're building new cities that are bigger than any of our cities.
It's absolutely insane to have made that statement.
VARNEY: But—so what are you going to do about this? Obviously we have got a trade problem with China, but we have got news today that GE is getting a $2 billion investment out of China, and news also today that Saginaw, Michigan, is now—China is the number-one employer in Saginaw, Michigan.
I mean, what…
TRUMP: Sure. That is a tiny, little place that is wonderful, but they are using that just to show how nice they are, when, in fact, they are not looking for our good.
And they shouldn't be. They should be looking for their good.
VARNEY: What do we do about it?
TRUMP: And they have people that are very, very smart.
What I would do?
TRUMP: You have such a huge deficit with—trade deficit with China. Their currency is artificially low. And, see, we have fallen into the Chinese trap. We are now destroying the dollar in order to try and compete with them. We shouldn't be doing that. We should be keeping the dollar strong and stable and we should tax Chinese products.
And the people that talk about free trade, we don't have free—I am a big free trade believer, by the way—but we don't have free trade with China.
China is, literally, going to destroy this company—this country. If we don't get smart quickly, China will destroy our country.
TRUMP: And they will do it with a smile. And our people have no idea what is happening.
Since then, Trump has doubled down on the China warnings, recently telling Larry Kudlow that the issue has become so serious he's considering a presidential campaign: "For the first time, I'm seriously thinking about doing it," Trump said. "If I did it, and if I win, we will be respected again."
But if you've been asleep since the late 1980s (you didn't miss much), you might be confused to hear The Donald attacking the wrong country. In that less thought-tormented age—when America was staggering from a recession said to be the worst since the 1930s, the Trump empire was a broken field of bad debts and bankruptcies, and the mores of the inscrutable east were celebrated in verse and song—the threat to America's existence was not China but Japan. Trump wanted everybody to know it. The situation was so dire he was even considering running for president. From a 1990 Playboy interview:
We Americans are laughed at around the world for losing a hundred and fifty billion dollars year after year, for defending wealthy nations for nothing, nations that would be wiped off the face of the earth in about fifteen minutes if it weren't for us. Our "allies" are making billions screwing us.
PLAYBOY: How do you feel about Japan's economic pre-eminence?
TRUMP: Japan gets almost seventy percent of its oil from the Persian Gulf, relies on ships led back home by our destroyers, battleships, helicopters, frog men. Then the Japanese sail home, where they give the oil to fuel their factories so that they can knock the hell out of General Motors, Chrysler and Ford. Their openly screwing us is a disgrace. Why aren't they paying us? The Japanese cajole us, they bow to us, they tell us how great we are and then they pick our pockets. We're losing hundreds of billions of dollars a year while they laugh at our stupidity.
The Japanese have their great scientists making cars and VCRs and we have our great scientists making missiles so we can defend Japan. Why aren't we being reimbursed for our costs? The Japanese double-screw the U.S., a real trick: First they take all our money with their consumer goods, then they put it back in buying all of Manhattan. So either way, we lose.
PLAYBOY: You're opposed to Japanese buying real estate in U.S.?
TRUMP: I have great respect for the Japanese people and list many of them as great friends. But, hey, if you want to open up a business in Japan, good luck. It's virtually impossible. But the Japanese can buy our buildings, our Wall Street firms, and there's virtually nothing to stop them. In fact, bidding on a building in New York is an act of futility, because the Japanese will pay more than it's worth just to screw us. They want to own Manhattan.
Of course, I shouldn't even be complaining about it, because I'm one of the big beneficiaries of it. If I ever wanted to sell any of my properties, I'd have a field day. But it's an embarrassment! I give great credit to the Japanese and their leaders, because they have made our leaders look totally second rate.
PLAYBOY: A group of Japanese visitors to New York was recently asked if there were anything in the U.S. they would like to buy. The answer: towels.
TRUMP: That's fair trade: They'll take the towels and we'll buy their cars. It doesn't sound like a good deal to me. They have totally outsmarted the American politician; they have no respect for us, because they're getting a free ride. Of course, it's not just the Japanese or the Europeans—the Saudis, the Kuwaitis walk all over us.
In any event, the similarities in his complaints are striking—from the he-man obsession with our country's not appearing tough enough to the Hawley-Smoot plan to restore prosperity through tariffs to the "I'm a free trader, but…" phrasing.
Then as now the xenophobia of Trump and others had a mirror in the Asiaphilic stylings of liberals. During the eighties, well-thinking people were sure America needed to copy Japan's vertical integration and workplace calisthenics. Today, old China hands like Nicholas Kristof and Thomas L. Friedman covet China's autocratic environmental policies and one-child civic sensibility. In many ways Trump's straightforward Yellow Peril demagoguery is less creepy than its enlightened liberal counterpart. And don't forget that while the Obama Administration may not be macho enough for Trump, it's done a pretty good job of getting the trade war started.