I was reminded recently of Peter Gigante, the Fairhaven resident who has the distinction of being Washington state’s single largest donor to the 2016 Donald Trump presidential campaign. I interviewed Gigante in January 2017, in the days leading up to Trump’s Inauguration. I spoke to him again last spring, on the occasion of Trump’s 100th day in office.
Gigante came to mind not because Trump has hit the one-year mark on his term—although the timing is convenient, I will say that—but because of a story I came across in the Jan. 8, 2018 issue of The New Yorker, headlined, “Making China Great Again.”
The article, reported by Evan Osnos, describes how America’s isolationism under Trump, most dramatically his withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement, enables China to rise to preeminence on the world stage. The article wasn’t just discussing economic superiority, either. As rapidly as China’s economy is growing, it seems inevitable China’s economy will surpass America’s eventually. The New Yorker article’s main point was that China would gain cultural superiority as well, remaking the world in its image, just as the U.S. did after World War II.
“For years, China’s leaders predicted that a time would come—perhaps midway through this century—when it could project its own values abroad,” Osnos wrote. “In the age of ‘America First,’ that time has come far sooner than expected.”
Osnos, I should mention, is no slouch as a reporter on China. When he was still in his 30s, he won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2014 for his “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China.” The reporting in the book happened during the eight years Osnos lived in Beijing.
Gigante has his own expertise regarding China. He also lived in China for eight years, working as a developer and importer. Gigante’s up-close experience with China’s economy and business policies certainly qualifies him as an expert on the very issues Osnos brings forward in his article. In fact, Gigante’s main impetus for supporting Trump, with a total of $3,200 in campaign contributions, was his belief that the New York real estate magnate would follow through on his campaign promises and correct the job-killing trade imbalance between the U.S. and China. Steps Trump promised during the campaign included retaliating with tariffs on Chinese goods entering the U.S., to match or exceed the tariffs that have long been in place in China on U.S. exports; and penalizing China for keeping its currency artificially low in order to bolster its trade. (A weak currency means your products look inexpensive in the eyes of other countries. Local analogy: When the U.S. dollar is weak relative to the Canadian dollar, more Canadians than usual fill Whatcom County’s retail parking lots.)
Gigante’s interest in seeing balance restored in international trade isn’t only about saving or creating American manufacturing jobs. It’s about seeing America maintain its primacy as a global actor, particularly when it comes to advancing its values.
Here are two quotes from Gigante, taken from our first interview in January 2017:
“In 10 years, if the U.S. doesn’t flex what strength it still has now, our nation will have ceded economic and military supremacy to China.”
“If we’re not in the economic position to project power militarily, we’re not going to be able to defend or advance our values across the globe. Over time, our weakened influence will result in changing values around the globe, values that most Americans can’t fathom and will be loathe to accept.”
So like I said, when I read the Osnos article, I thought of Gigante. He speaks of China globally spreading its values—xenophobia, government control of public speech, and environmental degradation—at the expense of ours, if the failed trade policies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama would have been allowed to continue. Since Gigante’s interests matched up so nicely with Osnos’ own in this one particular New Yorker article, I thought I’d convene a meeting of the minds, sort of a remote Gigante v. Osnos debate. I sent Gigante a link to the New Yorker piece and asked him about it.
Would Gigante agree with Osnos’ assessment and express buyer’s remorse over Trump?
“The article is not convincing. It is wrong on many counts, and it doesn’t make the case that it asserts,” Gigante wrote in an email to me. Our entire interview was conducted in emails exchanged between Jan. 7 and Jan. 15.
“I realize you are anxious to find creative ways for Trump supporters to regret their vote, but right now the only regret is the ridiculous, stubborn and frankly ignorant opposition to anything Trump tries to accomplish,” Gigante said.
“The author is just spouting the same old liberal line: ‘Let’s all join hands as a global community and sing together.’ Doesn’t work that way,” Gigante added, in another curt assessment of Osnos’ work.
Gigante acknowledged that the two campaign promises highlighted in our previous discussions—addressing China’s currency manipulation and instituting tariffs on Chinese goods coming into the USA—haven’t been fulfilled, at least not yet.
On the other hand, Gigante said, Trump has taken three big steps to thwart China’s rise: Withdrawing from TPP and the Paris climate change agreement, and taking steps to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“These issues directly impact our relationship with China, and Trump’s position on all three weakens China’s hand,” Gigante wrote.
“Backing out of Paris shines a spotlight on China’s environmental offenses, instead of allowing China to sweep them under the rug as Obama would have done. In fact backing out of Paris is the single biggest thing Trump has done that would have otherwise given a green light to the rise of China’s values and the marginalization of our own. (emphasis Gigante’s) ... Entering into Paris would have had an impact on China and USA unmatched by even the worst of currency manipulations. It would have sealed our fate economically. By renegotiating NAFTA, it heads off China’s attempt to place factories in Mexico to take advantage of NAFTA. By exiting TPP, it helps the USA forge more targeted and mutually beneficial trade relationships, (that would be) more effective in containing China than a one-size-fits-all trade deal that would force the USA to shoulder all the costs.”
Gigante elaborated on the Paris agreement in a separate message:
“The Paris Accord would have forced the USA to make unilateral cuts in carbon dioxide while enabling China to continue to boost its own carbon dioxide emissions unbridled for the next 13 years, or until such time as China’s ‘per capita’ carbon dioxide equaled that of the United States, the only measure China is willing to acknowledge as fair. The problem is that China’s population is 5 times that of our country, so their carbon dioxide emissions would be allowed to increase about five-fold from presently catastrophic levels under the Paris Accord. If the stated objective of the agreement is truly to reduce carbon dioxide emissions on a global basis, it fails miserably in doing so.
“People need to stop thinking of China as a poor, developing country. The old paradigm no longer fits reality. China is in fact a wealthy, fully developed country and is rapidly surpassing the West on many levels. Most of these gains are due to unfair practices unheard of in Western economies that discriminate in favor of Chinese-owned interests at the expense of Western companies. China also needs to be held to the same environmental and worker safety standards as the United States.”
Back to the email about the three major steps Trump has taken so far:
“The above are only three specific examples of what Trump has done to address the concern mentioned. True, he has not addressed tariffs or currency issues, YET. But he has done a lot in the right direction on matters that affect China’s position from what it would have been otherwise. Putting more leadership responsibility on China’s lap will bare their shortcomings for all to see. To do otherwise is to allow China to sweep them under the rug and have the USA bear the costs of effectively subsidizing China’s rise and the dominance of their values. Obama acted as if the USA was so rich it could afford to give up these things. He was an idiot. China is wealthier than the USA. Wake up!”
While I find no indications that Trump is going to label China a currency manipulator anytime soon (during the campaign, Trump said he would do this on his first day in office), his administration is on the verge of putting trade restrictions on a handful of Chinese exports, including a big one—steel. For more information, I found two articles:
- An op-ed in The New York Times by the president of the Association for American Manufacturing, who criticizes Trump for not being decisive enough so far on trade, particularly when it comes to protecting America’s steelmakers from Chinese imports.
- Politico has a nice rundown of potential tariff actions that are weeks if not days away, on various goods including solar panels and washing machines.