It is almost a certainty that President Donald Trump does not want to go to war with China over the disputed islands in the South China Sea. True, Rex Tillerson provocatively compared Beijing’s moves in the area to “Russia’s taking of Crimea”, saying that its “access to these islands also is not going to be allowed”. And yes, White House press secretary Sean Spicer pledged to defend “international territories” in the South China Sea.
But the reality is that both men just misspoke. Because they are clueless. Trump’s team is inexperienced in foreign policy and they do not rely on expert briefings.
Blockading the islands is operationally almost impossible. What President Trump is doing is attempt to exert trade concessions from China. That’s how he is used to operating.
So, it is highly unlikely that he will start a hot war with China. Instead, he is just going to produce new scandals and crises with other nations in order to cling to power.
Mind you, after national crises involving foreign actors, presidents often enjoy a bump in popularity. Kennedy saw his popularity shoot up after the Cuban missile crisis. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, George W Bush’s approval rating jumped from the mid-50s to a record high 92%. That’s what Trump is counting on.
Political scientists call this the “rally round the flag effect”. These are situations where the president embodies the spirit of the nation, earning himself a place above criticism.
Trump surely understands this, and may be tempted to aggravate a national crisis in order to protect himself. He is a keen student of mass appeal.
If the idea of Trump exacerbating a tense situation into a national crisis, or even a war, in order to save his presidency sounds too far fetched to you, consider how he obsesses over signs of his popularity. Trump’s White House continues to insist that his inauguration crowd was the largest ever, and that he only lost the popular vote because of massive election fraud. President Trump is the kind of man for whom public acclaim justifies his existence.
His approval rating is the lowest for a new president since Gallup begun surveying the issue in the Dwight D Eisenhower era. His refusal to release his tax returns, his impulsiveness, and his penchant for nepotism can only increase the chance of an impeachable scandal.
He has shown himself to be a master at redirecting attention away from his scandals and incompetence. A state of national emergency following an Isis attack, or a war with China to “steal our jobs back” would follow that same pattern. Never underestimate his desire to maintain popularity.
In times of national crises, Americans rally to the president as the symbol of national unity. So our national nightmare would be a Trump dream.
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