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Opinion

Confessions of an American in Asia during the Trump era

Trump's tariffs, tantrums and Twitter rage send wrong message to Asia's strongmen

| North America
Trump signs the executive order withdrawing from the TPP on Jan. 23, 2017: the happiest day of Xi Jinping's presidency.   © Getty Images

William Pesek is an award-winning Tokyo-based journalist and author of "Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan's Lost Decades."

As an American living abroad in the Trump era, I must confess to an unhealthy fascination with what Ferdinand Marcos did to the Philippines decades ago.

The Trump reality show connected the dots from the outset. Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign manager, worked for the Philippine leader in the 1980s, during Manafort's "Torturer's Lobby" days. Marcos paid Manafort a dictator's ransom to keep his breathtakingly corrupt family in power.

Though Marcos fled Manila in 1986, all too many vestiges of the kleptocracy he built remain. Current President Rodrigo Duterte is even rehabilitating the Marcos name, favoring Ferdinand Marcos Jr. for vice president.

Yet who am I to judge given Trump's Marcosification of the White House? It is all there as Trump fights for another four years: neutering government institutions; flouting the rule of law; kowtowing to despots; meddling in elections; turning the military on people; gaslighting; enriching personal businesses; making family part of the grift; pulling shadowy figures into his orbit.

In recent weeks, I found myself writing about corruption in China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Each time, I kept stopping mid-sentence and thinking: Hmmm just like Trump World, you hypocrite!

Thanks to Trump, my least favorite part of the day is the 30 seconds between awaking and looking at my iPhone screen for the latest insanity spewing from the Orange One. My second least favorite: the humiliation of a taxi driver, bartender or shopkeeper asking: "You are an American. How did this -- happen?"

I was born in Queens, Trump's own stomping ground. I have lived away from the U.S. since 2001. There were times, like during George W. Bush's disastrous Iraq misadventure, when I sensed genuine anger in my travels around Asia. But on Trump's watch, I can confirm the observation by Irish Times commentator Fintan O'Toole that America is less feared or respected in the Trump era than pitied. As O'Toole asked: "Will American prestige ever recover from this shameful episode?"

The start, of course, is dislodging America's Marcos from power.

In the arc of America's 244-year history, Trump's 1,361 days in office are but a blur. It is not the years; it is the mileage. And no odometer tells the sordid tale of Trumpian decline better than Pew Research. It finds Trump is less trusted in world circles than China's Xi Jinping and Russia's Vladimir Putin.

The decline predated Trump's catastrophic COVID-19 response. It started with him betraying Japan by exiting the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and cozying up with Kim Jong. Cynicism grew as Trump banned Muslims, pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, violated the Iran nuclear deal and threw the global economy under the bus with a nihilist trade war that achieved nothing.

Trump's policies are ripped directly from headlines of the mid-1980s, back when Manafort had free rein in Marcos' presidential palace. His giant tax cuts, rolling back of any regulations in sight and tariffs that might have worked wonders 35 years ago. All they are doing now is making China great again and leaving allies Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Singapore unsure where to turn.

Paul Manafort, pictured in June 2019, worked for Ferdinand Marcos in the 1980s.   © Reuters

The happiest day of President Xi Jinping's presidency, arguably, was in January 2017 when Trump trashed TPP. Ditto for Trump attacking the multilateral institutions keeping China in line and starting a trade war that hurt U.S. allies more than Xi.

The real payoff for China will come in 2025. Look, Xi is not loving 2020. Trump's taxes on Chinese goods hurt. So do his assaults on Huawei Technologies, TikTok, WeChat and Jack Ma's Ant Group, as it prepares history's biggest initial public offering. Jealous much, Mr. President?

None of these impetuous, mid-80s-style maneuvers make America more competitive, innovative or egalitarian. They do not address crumbling infrastructure, lackluster Wi-Fi capacity or a failing education system. They do not shore up the health care system as Trump Nation approaches 8 million COVID-19 cases (Trump and his wife, included).

Tripping China will not build the economic muscle needed to keep the U.S. in the race in the long run. China has countless challenges -- from too much debt to too much state control over enterprise. There are many valid reasons to hit Xi's government -- from its power grab in Hong Kong to deepening censorship to its treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

But Trump's tariffs, tantrums and Twitter rage do far more damage to Washington's status than good for its trade balance. They send the wrong message to strongmen leaders from Bangkok to New Delhi to Manila. His "stand back and standby" flirtation with white supremacists makes me cringe for the next Pew Research report.

Who knows, maybe Manafort -- from house arrest -- can save Trump from all the legal troubles waiting in a Joe Biden era. Marcos escaped justice by fleeing to America. Perhaps Duterte will give Trump safe passage to live in Trump Tower Manila.

In the meantime, all we America expats can do is stand back and standby as we stare at the world's most useless passport. And fight the urge to sew a Canadian flag on our backpacks.

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