We're not so different, you and I

So said Dr. Evil to a gormless Austin Powers. Pacino and De Niro basically say the same to each other in that late-night cafe scene in Michael Mann’s Heat. Just with more smirks and barks and stares. Then, of course, there’s Heath Ledger’s whack-job Joker, convinced he’s found his asylum soul-mate in the buttoned-down Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight.

Rivals, even enemies, often are not so very different. Take Party Secretary Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump, for instance.

Both men are princelings - born into privilege (though Xi got sent down, and Trump chickened out of Vietnam), nurtured with the expectation that they would achieve ‘great things’. Xi’s dad, by most accounts, was a guy who did not play tribal politics, had the integrity to defend the liberal Party Secretary Hu Yaobang when everyone else ran for cover, and who was a careful steward of ‘Opening Up and Reform’. Xi Zhongxun made his name in the north-west before 1949, suffered much in Beijing and high-tailed it south, out of the capital’s snake-pit in the 1980s. Joseph Torigian has a very perceptive essay on the Xi Snr./Xi Jnr. relationship here. In great contrast, Trump Snr. was a take-no-prisoners real estate developer, brash, always ready to street-fight, probably pretty racist. The kind of father who you probably love and fear in equal measure. (Torigian’s portrait of Xi Snr. is of a tough, bullying dad too.) Despite their gargantuan differences, though, both fathers gave their sons a leg-up at birth. Trump got the money and the swagger, Xi got a sweet job with Geng Biao at PLA HQ after graduation, some protection during the Cultural Revolution and got to know his fellow princelings.

More importantly, though, despite being the sons of big men, both Xi and Trump had to fight for their peers’ respect and the power they enjoy today. Trump was the crass guy, desperate for snooty Manhattan’s approval. Of course, he never got it, but he figured he could play a caricature of himself and still live that life. Xi, while favored with Beijing’s approval for his appointments, still had to hack out a career out in the provinces, far from Beijing’s high politics.

But both men knew instinctively when to run the gap in the traffic. Trump’s brilliance was that he saw the Republican Party had over-ripened - that its elite had for too long talked down government, talked up resentment, blown the dog whistle and buggered up both the Middle East and the economy. John McCain, for all his heroism, chose Sarah Palin as his running mate when he knew that debilitating illness could come to him, and leave this sorry excuse as president, an act unbecoming of a patriot. The GOP elite was Wiley Coyote - and a cartoonish Trump knew exactly the real ground on which its base was standing. He saw in Palin a chance, a template. Cue: a loud mouth, a bucket of cojones, some agit-prop and bingo - nomination. Alien onboard, it was quickly over for the GOP spaceship.

Xi’s path up was markedly different (I wrote about this extensively here). He was the quiet compromise candidate back in 2012, the unthreatening guy from the sticks whose dad fled power politics when he had the chance. Li Keqiang, Hu Jintao’s favorite, was too bookish to lead. Bo Xilai was a dark horse whose dad everyone hated. Xi Jnr. wasn’t supposed to amount to much; he had no big friends after all, and a watchful Zeng Qinghong was ready to stand behind the red throne. But nomination in the bag, boy did Xi get strategic. His was a master-class in how to take over a state:

  1. Insert your iron-man comrade as the head of the de facto police force, and unleash the dogs on your opponents.
  2. Nurture military credentials with tough talk, and throw money at the South China Seas build-up.
  3. Set up new ‘leading groups’ for everything, end-running the Party’s supposedly-elite cabinet.
  4. And then speed chess-move your guys around the country and up into positions in Beijing as fast as possible.

In all this, Xi understood the party he was taking control of, just like Trump, better than the elites. He knew it was deeply corrupt and that an anti-corruption campaign would be both immensely popular and shore up his control.

Six years in and Xi owns the bureaucracy. The coup de grace: ending the presidential two-term limit in March 2018. Of course, little power comes with that post, but it was the only trigger for a power transition in 2022. If he could read that far, I’m pretty sure Trump would have similar views on the 22nd amendment.

But here, I think, is the key difference between them. Trump is running amuck. He is a true populist - he really thought government was easy, like he told his voters. He does not even appear to appreciate that the strong men he so admires really put the hours in to get where they are today. He’s a huckster, suited to the small-time con, who has lucked out. He has neither the strategic smarts or the ice-cold patience for building a proper dictatorship. Trump may emote as a dictator, but the word is way too big for him. And so, with zero vision and strategic cunning, Trump flounders. Or not quite - his administration achieves stuff, but its the rotten late-GOP agenda which is getting pushed through: tax cuts for the already-wealthy, deficits be damned, booby-tracking affordable healthcare, and injecting conservatives into the courts. Trump cares only about the crowds’ cheers.

In contrast, Xi never stops plotting, never stops extending influence. He’s staffed his full bench while most US government departments are still awaiting seniors. Every visit to the provinces. Every speech. Every visit to Italy or Montenegro. (Montenegro! This guy really dots his diplomatic ‘i’s). He knows what he wants and he knows how to use the tool-box to get it. Trump demands loyalty and people snigger; no one sniggers anywhere within a 100km radius of Xi. Indeed, while half the country appears to think Trump a huge mistake, Xi would likely get higher approval numbers, if we could properly ask. Certainly, the more educated urban elite has its qualms; the constitutional revision made many nervous. But out in provinces?

And here are the biggest similarities I think. First, both men seem to hanker after the good old days, they want to make their countries great “again”. Xi seems to want to rewind China back to Mao’s early days, the 1950s, before the starvation and the chaos, when the Party was still popular, honest of sorts, and any opposition was dealt with in an orderly fashion. Mao and Deng were the revolutionaries; Xi, though, is the conservative. He’s interested in that status quo, not new ideas. The leftist Utopia website got shut down, as did the middle-of-the-road Gongshi forum, as did the progressive Yanhuang Chunqiu journal. Trump, too, wants the 1950s back - the easy-days of an expanding white middle-class, a car in every garage, America ahead.

And this is where I think the second important similarity lies; neither really has a route back to those idealised 1950s’ days. America in its soul is progressive, even if its darker angels say otherwise. Everything President Trump does weakens America and undermines his white, working class base. They deserve far better. The future of the country is still getting the heartland to look more like the coasts. As for Party Secretary Xi, he stands a better chance perhaps in the short-run, but Chinese society is moving quickly, and not in his direction. China’s future is economically and socially liberal, too. The state will get richer, the economy will advance technologically, China’s influence will grow abroad, no doubt. But at some point, and it may take quite some time, the people will want a more liberal, progressive leadership. Anyhow, I chose to be optimistic, at least for today.