In 2018, artist Kanye West shocked the world when he tweeted that he and US President Donald Trump were “brothers” who both had “dragon energy”. It seemed like a strange choice of words to use, but as time goes on it appears Mr. West’s intuition might have been better than what he was given credit for.
It’s no secret that Trump has long criticized how previous US leaders handled negotiations and trade deals, especially negotiations and trade deals with China. If you listen to any Trump speech over the last decade, you are bound to hear at least one soundbite lamenting China and how they’ve ostensibly gotten away with unfair trade practices for years while America’s leaders were asleep at the wheel.
His grievances against China have been so prevalent in his rhetoric that they’ve become a meme in and of themselves. Ask anyone around the world in any language one thing they know about Trump’s policies, and his stance on China will surely be the most cited. And if recent polling around the globe is any indication, it is indeed his most popular stance across the world.
Given his longstanding rivalry with China’s leaders and his emphasis on putting America first, you could be forgiven for thinking Trump would be above implementing and applying anything remotely resembling China’s philosophies in his methods. On the contrary, nobody on Earth embodies the traditional wisdom of ancient China than Donald J. Trump.
The Trump And I
On a superficial level, you can see the respect Trump and his family have towards China. As much as he seems to criticize China, listen closely and you’ll realize more often than not he is actually praising China’s business savvy while decrying the relative naivety of Western leaders. And in the backdrop of all this, his own granddaughter is learning Mandarin and even personally sang to China’s Xi Jinping in his native tongue in an unprecedented heartwarming diplomatic move.
And when you look just beneath the surface, you will find that perhaps there is more to these superficialities than meets the eye. Indeed, beneath the surface Trump has been influenced by ancient Chinese ways more than you might think. Specifically, he seems to have taken a lot of notes out of the most famous of China’s ancient playbooks, none other than Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu’s classic The Art of War.
Right away the title might sound familiar even for those who have never heard of it. Donald Trump apparently took enough inspiration from the book that he reworded it into the title of his first bestseller The Art of the Deal.
But how does Trump implement lessons from Sun Tzu’s manuscript into his own style on both a professional and personal level? Well, let’s take a look at just a few examples by comparing strategies from The Art of War to Trump’s own behavior.
‘The Art of War’ Meets ‘The Art of the Deal’
“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Perhaps no other quote better encapsulates Trump’s style than this. It seems that wherever Trump goes, he cannot help but to cause chaos. His supporters are often frustrated at how the media at large generally spins everything Trump says and does, even if it is positive, into a negative. This does have disadvantages, of course, but in a cost/benefit analysis, you’ll notice that Trump often secures a victory and walks away relatively unscathed while distracted pundits and politicians alike squabble over his latest soundbite. Years ago he conditioned the media to go into a frenzy over his every little word, and now they are so wound up they act in a predictably chaotic manner; therein lies his opportunity to weaken their credibility and the public’s trust in them.
“Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.”Sun Tzu, The Art of War
His critics will not what to hear this and he probably doesn’t want them to hear this either, but they must: Donald Trump is not stupid. By thinking he is, you only set yourself up for failure. And he will definitely lean into your preconceived notions of who he is to indulge the caricatured fantasy you’ve constructed in your mind, but he knows what he’s doing. While you underestimate the character of Trump he’s helped you carefully create, he is the total opposite of that behind the scenes and should not be underestimated.
“There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare.”Sun Tzu, The Art of War
While the United States is still actively engaged in military conflicts throughout the world, it is undeniable that President Trump has attempted to dial down the number of US soldiers stationed abroad and the military presence of the US on the global stage. He has tried to pull troops out of Afghanistan and Syria, and has expressed the desire to do so elsewhere as well. When he does greenlight military action it is usually a quick and decisive show of force rather than a protracted and drawn-out development, such as dropping a MOAB on an ISIS stronghold or striking Iranian General Soleimani.
“When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.”Sun Tzu, The Art of War
No matter how tough Trump talks, he always extends an olive branch somewhere in the conversation underneath all of the bluster. In the midst of weeks of exchanging insults back and forth between himself and North Korea’s leadership, Trump still tweeted out that he’d like to be friends with their leader Kim Jong Un someday. And later even personally met Mr. Kim at the Korean Demilitarized Zone in a historical and essentially impromptu summit. This is a pattern you will often see where Trump will brutally disparage and threaten opponents, while still offering some form of respect or even peace if they back down.
“You have to believe in yourself.”Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Does this one even need an explanation?
“Convince your enemy that he will gain very little by attacking you; this will diminish his enthusiasm.”Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Trump exudes so much confidence in America’s power that it not only sends a message of superiority to enemies, but also a message of “why even bother trying to compete? You’ve already lost.” He brushes off threats from opponents, and never fails to remind them that he is stronger than them and would win in a head-to-head confrontation.
“Be where your enemy is not.”Sun Tzu, The Art of War
One thing that many amongst Trump’s opposition have still never fully come to terms with is his victory in the 2016 presidential election. Mostly because they were too wrapped up in their bubble of mainstream pundits assuring them that Trump had no chance at winning and his opponent would easily take home the victory, with some estimates giving his opponent a 99% advantage.
So how did he come out of nowhere and flip states that hadn’t turned out for his party in years? Easy. Despite being ridiculed by mainstream sources, he still always had a presence in their coverage. And do you know where else he had a presence? Literally everywhere else, including many places his opponent was completely absent from.
His face was plastered on everything from memes to everyday household products. While his detractors might make fun of his failed venture into products like Trump Steaks or half-baked schemes like Trump University, there’s no doubt he is a master at branding, and you better believe whether you like him or not, Trump occupies a large space in the minds of his supporters and critics alike to the point of being omnipresent in a way nobody else is.
His name is as well-traveled now as the ubiquitous “Made In China” slogan slapped on nearly every cheap piece of plastic around the globe. And in that, Trump has outplayed China at their own game.
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