MAGA is on the side of the authoritarians
As Putin and Xi met in Moscow, a reminder that they can disappear their opponents at will. Donald Trump simply wishes he could. We shouldn’t forget that difference is what we’re fighting for.
In 1923, Vladimir Lenin retired from his position as Chairman of the Soviet government after suffering his third stroke. Calvin Coolidge became the 30th U.S. president after Warren Harding died suddenly of a heart attack on August 2nd. Later that year, Coolidge would give the first radio broadcast from a U.S. president. Also that year, the Nazi Party carried out the Beer Hall Putsch, an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the German government. Three days later, Hitler was arrested for his leading role. He would go on to write Mein Kampf while serving eight months of a five-year prison sentence. That same year, Warner Brothers was founded. The first issue of Time Magazine was published. Benito Mussolini was the Prime Minister of Italy. Bob Dole and Charlton Heston were born. Several European powers maintained extensive colonial holdings in Africa and Southeast Asia. Prohibition would go on being the law of the land in the United States for another ten years. To put it simply, this world was vastly different than our own, but of course, one hundred years is quite a long time and much can change in a century.
Nevertheless, after reading reports of the meeting between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow this quote in particular was meant to land the hardest, as reported by The Independent:
Xi Jinping had a parting comment about China for his “dear friend” Vladimir Putin as he concluded his two-day trip to Moscow.
On Tuesday evening, Mr Xi shook Mr Putin’s hand and talked about unprecedented change.
“Change is coming that hasn’t happened in 100 years. And we are driving this change together,” he said.
“I agree,” replied Mr Putin, to which the Chinese leader responded: “Take care of yourself, dear friend, please” and waved goodbye to the Russian president who wished him a “safe journey”.
Despite Western pressure—particularly from the United States—placed on Xi Jinping to cancel his trip to Moscow after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin related to the forced kidnapping of Ukrainian children who were then transported back to Russia, the Chinese leader went forward with his plans anyway. What motivates him to defy the wishes of the Western world? A frequent topic and theme expressed both by Russian and Chinese state-owned media is their desire to create a multi-polar world, one no longer dominated by the United States as the sole superpower. In some ways, China has already succeeded in achieving this, but the U.S. still holds power over financial markets and influences the global economy in a way the Chinese simply cannot match. If the Chinese were to supply aid to the Russian war of choice in Ukraine, Western sanctions would prove devastating to the Chinese economy in ways similar to what has occurred first in North Korea and more recently in Russia. Since both of these countries border China, Xi and other Chinese Communist Party leaders have seen the consequences of this firsthand. It’s that sort of leverage that pushes authoritarian states like Russia, China and Iran (and to a lesser extent Cuba and Venezuela) towards closer cooperation with each other. The U.S. can justify sanctions and other forms of punishment on moral grounds, but these countries both chafe under these punishments and reject the Western morals underpinning these actions as well.
Will a single moment spark the “change” that we haven’t seen in a hundred years? How could that change alter the direction of the world over the next hundred years? What I came to realize is there’s little change we haven’t seen in the last hundred years. The only catastrophe we’ve seemed to avoid—at times narrowly—was nuclear Armageddon. But then what did happen one hundred years ago? Political movements like fascism and communism burst onto the global scene with popular support and energy and promises of something better for some members of society. Yes, they ended up leaving ruin and devastation, Holocaust and Gulag in their wake. Millions died as a result. Yet those movements promised to upend the old way of doing things. They promised something different than the previous world order, and here Xi and Putin are hinting at a similar upheaval. The biggest impediment to this reordering of the established order is now as it has been for most of the last century—the United States.
Xi’s statement of change should of course be taken with a grain of salt. Strongmen often boast in ways they can never conceivably back up. In this, Putin at least is guilty of puffing his chest out as his army lay in ruins in Ukraine while his economy struggles to fend off collapse. Russia, for all its tough talk and imperial ambitions, looks to be relegated to junior partner status. If any great change is coming, it will be the Chinese government in the driver’s seat. However likely or unlikely this eventuality, there’s no real consensus on what Xi wants or on what timeline he’s operating on. Some say China’s one-hundred-year plan dates back to 1949, and we are quickly approaching its end date. Others see this as fanciful thinking. As Rush Doshi wrote of China’s ambitions for Brookings:
The coordination and long-term planning involved in grand strategy allow a state to punch above its weight; since China is already a heavyweight, if it has a coherent scheme that coordinates its $14 trillion economy with its blue-water navy and rising political influence around the world—and the United States either misses it or misunderstands it—the course of the twenty-first century may unfold in ways detrimental to the United States and the liberal values it has long championed.
Washington is belatedly coming to terms with this reality, and the result is the most consequential reassessment of its China policy in over a generation. And yet, amid this reassessment, there is wide-ranging disagreement over what China wants and where it is going. Some believe Beijing has global ambitions; others argue that its focus is largely regional. Some claim it has a coordinated 100-year plan; others that it is opportunistic and error-prone. Some label Beijing a boldly revisionist power; others see it as a sober-minded stakeholder of the current order. Some say Beijing wants the United States out of Asia; and others that it tolerates a modest US role. Where analysts increasingly agree is on the idea that China’s recent assertiveness is a product of Chinese President Xi’s personality—a mistaken notion that ignores the long-standing Party consensus in which China’s behavior is actually rooted. The fact that the contemporary debate remains divided on so many fundamental questions related to China’s grand strategy—and inaccurate even in its major areas of agreement—is troubling, especially since each question holds wildly different policy implications.
I think it’s easy to make one’s enemy or rival out to be more evil and sinister than he actually is. The evil geniuses in Beijing with their one-hundred-year plan hatched in 1949 is almost the stuff of supervillain comic books. Perhaps some kind of document was drawn up by the party in 1949, but even if so, Xi Jinping is not beholden to his predecessor’s playbook. He is his own man with his own ambitions and vision of the world. No one—at least no one in China—has the power or authority to stop him at the moment.
As I watched the commentary from the United States on the visit between Xi and Putin, I saw the usual partisan points being scored from the usual right-wing influencers and politicians. They of course blamed Joe Biden for all of this. Russia and China are growing closer because of Biden’s supposed weakness. It aligns with Trump’s statements that Putin never would’ve invaded Ukraine if he was president. Of course, in their skewed reality, Donald Trump has always been tough on Russia even though MAGA consistently downplays the threat of Russia in order to defend Trump’s own fawning over Vladimir Putin. Their arguments are illogical in the face of even the tiniest amount of scrutiny, but they’re made nonetheless. It’s probably better if we don’t dwell on their hypocrisy too long here.
What I did want to say is it’s easy to lose our grounding in reality due to the immediacy of social media. Putin and Xi’s plans to reorder the World Order are probably less coherent than theoretical. Their growing alliance started before Biden and before Trump. It began after Xi was elected as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012. It’s not Obama’s fault or Trump’s fault or Biden’s fault that this happened. The Russians and Chinese made a conscious decision to increase their cooperation based around their shared goals. The choice was theirs. It’s our choice to continue the constant bickering and finger pointing while authoritarians consolidate power, or to work toward a future in which Democratic ideals not only persist but remain our guiding principle. The current political system and polarization in America is debilitating. There’s little we can agree on. It seems like each session of Congress achieves less than the one that came before it with no end in sight. The current state of Kevin McCarthy’s House speaks to this in ways I’ve elaborated on repeatedly. We fight culture wars while income inequality grows. American oligarchs and monopolistic corporations continue to capture wealth and resources, squeezing out all those who stand opposed to this. Many people rely on GoFundMe for their healthcare. Citizens United and the end of Roe v. Wade have put on display the flaws in our deeply corrupted judicial system.
I’m not here to defend all the things that are wrong in this country, but I am here to remind you that the alternative is almost certainly going to be worse. MAGA scores political points by bashing Joe Biden for the authoritarian summit in Moscow, but in reality, they’re doing the dirty work of the Russian and Chinese propagandists here at home. A world without democracy, without our basic freedoms, isn’t something we should take for granted or assume will endure in perpetuity. Putin and Xi can disappear their opponents in their respective countries. Donald Trump simply wishes he could. These things are not the same, and we shouldn’t forget that difference is what we’re fighting for.