What Trump Has in Common With Mao

Orville Schell describes how Donald Trump and Mao Zedong share similar populist and "revolutionary" traits that helped propel them to power. (4 min., 23 sec.)

Throughout his presidential campaign and since his election in November, Donald Trump has proposed ideas that would dramatically shake up the U.S. role in the global economic and security order. He’s threatened to tear up international trade deals and questioned commitments to long-standing alliances. Rhetoric toward China in particular, like questioning the “One China Policy” and threatening a 45 percent tariff on all Chinese goods, has raised fears of a trade war and possibly even a military conflict.

To one long-time China observer, Trump's vows to upend the established order serve as a reminder of a leader from an earlier generation.

“In many ways I think [Trump] is like Mao Zedong,” said Orville Schell, director of Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China relations. “I say that not facetiously. … He was a revolutionary, he was a populist, and he came in wanting to turn over the old order. ‘If you don't destroy, you can't construct.’”

Schell, who was speaking at Asia Society in New York on Wednesday, said that conditions in China that led to Mao’s ascension to power share some similarities to those propelling Trump to victory. “I think there’s a bit of this outsider, troublemaker, turner-over of old orders, putting fingers of the eyes of the establishment in Donald Trump,” he said. “And I think there was some kind of inchoate expression in America for the need to somehow turn things over.”

Daniel Rosen, founding partner of the Rhodium Group, an economics consultancy focused on China, noted that a key difference between Trump and Mao is that the latter appeared to believe deeply in what he was espousing. “Look at Trump and his behavior throughout his life,” Rosen said. “I'm not as convinced yet that he's as revolutionary as he sounds when he's speaking to some audiences.”

He noted that there are mixed signals from those Trump has appointed to his administration. “There are some pretty radical voices in the mix and they're being put in charge of new entities,” Rosen said. “But in the traditional power centers of the Defense Department and State Department, for instance, the secretaries-designate are fairly conventionally minded people who are pretty deeply committed to the international order as we know it. They’re mindful of just how much the U.S. has at stake in the way the system traditionally functions.”

Rosen said that with the U.S.-China relationship, the incoming administration is akin to a three layer cake, with cabinet-level positions on top, senior deputy level posts in the middle, and other senior staff “who actually have to take the trash out after the party” at the bottom. “The senior deputies level is where you find these folks that really want to find a way to start something [with China],” Rosen said, adding that those at the top and bottom layers, on the other hand, mostly have no desire to pick a fight.

Schell said that there are many ongoing issues in the U.S.-China relationship that are “out of balance” and in need of reassessment, and Trump's volatility may actually yield a new kind of discussion to happen. But Chinese leaders cannot be allowed to feel they’ve lost face or been forced to capitulate to American demands. “One way to do it possibly plays out of Trump's strength: Trump and Xi Jinping get together and makes some deals, come to some understanding, which is conceivable,” he said.

He also noted that Trump may have an easier time than his Chinese counterparts in back-pedaling on past promises if he wants to strike a deal. For instance, Trump has constantly accused China of devaluing its currency to gain a competitive advantage in exports — a claim at odds with China's recent attempts to push up the renminbi’s value. “[Trump] is perfectly capable of two months from now saying, ‘You know what folks, not a problem, they did it, they listened to me,’” Schell said. “This is the great virtue of not needing to be consistent — you have immense flexibility.”

In the above video, Schell compares the popular appeal of Trump and Mao. Watch the full program in the video below.

Daniel Rosen and Orville Schell discuss what Trump’s presidency could mean for the future of U.S.-China relations. (1 hr., 12 min.)

About the Author

Profile picture for user Eric Fish

Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.