When Straw Men Sell False Choices

Barry Brownstein’s essays usually bring more light than heat to issues of the day. He’s a professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore, and often he sounds like an uncle to whom you’d turn for advice.

But in a March 24 essay at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), Brownstein tries to make a case for “Why We Should Love China, Not Fear It”—and therein lies the problem: A straw man in a headline never travels alone. Brownstein’s plea for Sinophilia is thick with straw men.

Having mounted his anti-Trump horse, Brownstein goes to the whip hand right out of the gate, planting the idea that tariffs imposed on Chinese imports are monstrously ill-advised. “FEE readers,” he writes, “understand well the destructive effects of Trump’s tariffs.”

It’s an interesting way to start an essay that is not about tariffs, and it only makes sense if you are already persuaded to see those economic tools as symptoms of a pathology from which the president and his supporters suffer.

One hopes FEE readers also understand that tariffs have time limits. Consider the new trade agreement between the United States and China announced in January: Observers have concluded it is “delivering despite coronavirus.” That was the gist of a Fox Business story published the same week that Brownstein decried President Trump’s allegedly “narcissistic” vision for America.

Straw men love adjectives in the same way snipers love high ground.

The current U.S.-China deal was made possible partly by tariffs, and—according to MarketWatch—it could “move the world closer to free trade and ultimately save the World Trade Organization.” Increased exports and stronger protection for intellectual property would be good things for America, right?

The big picture would have been easier for Brownstein to see if he hadn’t been enchanted by the identification of 16 different cases “in which an ascending power (like China) challenged an established power (like the United States).” In 12 of those 16 cases, the challenger and the champion made war on each other.

Clutching the memory of conflict between Athens and Sparta to his chest like a model of COVID-19 (an influence that’s too scarily impressive to revise in light of actual experience), Brownstein turns from the straw men he’s already used (tariffs as horrible weapons, America-first trade policy as narcissistic) to introduce yet another straw man, Mr. Specious Analogy: Suppose Mississippi became a wealthy state, he wonders—Would that gladden your heart, or would you “worry that Mississippians gained their wealth by ripping you off?” (Subtext: Are you a righteous person or a xenophobe?)

China is not Mississippi, Brownstein admits, but he is at pains to remind us that “the tide of war will stay offshore when we add love to thick economic interdependence.” We do that for people with whom we share a national identity, but we ought also to do it for people from other nations, he says.

As one reader noted in the comments of his essay, Brownstein’s notion of love between countries seems flexible enough to include capitulation.

Moreover, he doesn’t allow for the possibility that you can love China while simultaneously working to check the pernicious influence of its Communist leadership at every turn (or, indeed, love China precisely by doing that—as witness the Wuhan residents saying that coronavirus figures released by their government don’t add up).

Brownstein echoes National Public Radio in suggesting that Donald Trump has a zero-sum view of the world where America cannot win unless China loses. He wants the rest of us to believe that Trump is a hateful narcissist treating trade policy like a zero-sum game.

Have we reached the point at which calling for an end to illegal trade practices is considered warlike activity when the speaker a Republican from Queens? Brownstein seems to think so. But based on what we’ve seen throughout Trump’s presidency so far, it’s more accurate to think of him as a shrewd patriot using every peaceful means at his disposal to broker win-win agreements internationally.

To the extent it exists, zero-sum thinking comes from Chinese Communist leaders who used the COVID-19 crisis they abetted to bulldoze temples and churches. When they appeal to national memory or world opinion, it’s with a view toward retaining their own grip on power, rather than out of nostalgia for China as the fabled “Middle Kingdom.”

Another straw man deserving of a brotherly backhand is the idea that a worrisome number of Americans up to and including the president operate from an assumption of “national supremacy.”

Look: Ray Charles’ version of “America the Beautiful” still brings tears to my eyes, but supremacy and self-sufficiency are two different things. If you can’t be patriotic without flirting with national socialism or prudent without being dismissed as hopelessly parochial, then Brownstein must also be disappointed with Brazilians (Headline on an April 8 story about developments in that country: “Brazil Turns to Local Industry to Build Ventilators as China Orders Fall Through”).

Faulty premises undergirding a misguided plea for tolerance would not warrant rebuttal if they were uncommon, but Brownstein’s willingness to speculate about motive, cherry-pick examples, and give Beijing more latitude than President Donald Trump ever would, are in line with the prevailing bias in the mass media. It’s not a good look.

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About Patrick O'Hannigan

Patrick O’Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.

Photo: Ralf Hiemisch/Getty Images

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