In Republican Primaries, China is the Enemy
In the battle for the Republican nomination for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat, Dr. Mehmet Oz has any number of insults he could hurl at his main rival, the former hedge fund titan David McCormick. Oz, who has Donald Trump’s endorsement, could label McCormick’s Bridgewater Capital as a jobs killer or lampoon McCormick’s convenient transformation from normie Jeb Bush supporter to MAGA acolyte. But Oz is fulminating about McCormick’s China connections, and his beef with McCormick is best encapsulated in his ad, “China Bro.”
In the ad, two finance bros, “Tad” and “Chad,” declare, “Finance bro Dave McCormick is our hero” and laud him as “the Wolf of Westport,” a reference to where Bridgewater, the world’s largest hedge fund, is located.
“Bro, do you think saying, ‘I invest in China’ is a good pickup line?” Tad asks Chad over brewskis.
“Investing in foreign adversaries always plays!” Chad replies, adding, “McCormick sent jobs overseas.”
“One day, maybe we can do that too!” Tad replies. “Dave’s more than another finance bro.”
The pair conclude, “He’s China’s bro.” The ad’s kicker? The finance bros run through an office waving a “McCormick for Senate” sign—and a Chinese flag.
“China Bro” doesn’t lack subtlety. And neither does Beijing bashing, which seems like it’s on every Republican candidate’s lips this year, certainly in prominent GOP primaries. That shouldn’t be entirely shocking given China’s economic power, military flexing, and human rights abuses, as well as the widespread belief, or at least posturing for the Republican base, that Beijing intentionally created the coronavirus. There are legitimate criticisms about China and a reason politicians from Bernie Sanders to Ted Cruz aim broadsides at Beijing. China is America’s main strategic rival, and it’s increasingly authoritarian as it crushes democracy in Hong Kong, locks down Shanghai residents, and imprisons Uyghurs. For the United States, pushing back against China militarily and economically is necessary and complex, and it calls for nuance as much as power. But figuring out how to take on China is a delicate dance. The U.S. and Chinese economies are intertwined in a way the U.S. and USSR never were. For instance, more than 70 percent of the goods sold at Walmart are made in China, according to one estimate, and Beijing owns over $1 trillion of our national debt.
But “China Bro” is not nuanced—nor are the other GOP attacks on China.
The Republican talking points vary in degrees of crazy, from spewing lab leak conspiracies to labeling opponents Chinese pawns. China criticism has become shorthand for candidates eager to woo the fervent GOP base that shows up in primaries. More than half of Republicans in a recent Economist/YouGov poll describe China as an “enemy” versus 21 percent of Democrats. But one thing the Republicans’ China freak-out hasn’t done is articulate any sensible ideas for competing with America’s most powerful rival even as our economies are intertwined, and we need Beijing’s cooperation on everything from North Korea to climate change.
With $33 million already spent on TV ads, the Republican primary for retiring U.S. Senator Pat Toomey’s seat in Pennsylvania may be the nation’s most expensive.
The clown car of candidates seeking the nomination is the GOP personified: There’s McCormick, the former hedge titan, who ran a Super Bowl ad punctuated by chants of “Let’s Go, Brandon,” and media personality Kathy Barnette, who trumpets the Big Lie that Trump won the 2020 election. This doesn’t even include Trump’s initial pick, author and Army veteran Sean Parnell, who exited the race after the judge in his custody battle determined he abused his wife. And, of course, there’s Dr. Oz.
In Pennsylvania, where fracking, guns, and taxes might be typical issues in a GOP Senate primary, it’s all about China. McCormick and Oz portray one another as Beijing pawns. McCormick told Fox News in March that he wants to fight China by creating supply chains and manufacturing jobs in Pennsylvania, which would be swell if anyone knew how to create industrial jobs magically. He vows to keep Trump’s steel tariffs and promises to go after Beijing for Covid reparations. Let’s just say that trying to squeeze reparations from your banker isn’t easy.
Oz is not only airing the “China Bro” ad. He’s also calling McCormick “Beijing Dave.” Though McCormick, a Princeton PhD in international affairs, is running as an “America First” candidate, he used to cheer globalization while allowing that trade would cost some U.S. jobs as it created others. A State Department assistant secretary under George W. Bush, the then internationalist McCormick cautioned against protectionism, like any good hedge fund Republican. His Egyptian-born wife, Dina Powell, is a mainstream Republican and a partner at Goldman Sachs who joined the Trump administration as a senior economic adviser and worked on the National Security Council. Her presence in Trump’s West Wing was hailed as one of those normal-Republican appointments like James Mattis, meant to suggest that the wheels might stay on.
McCormick is in a tricky situation with his former hedge fund Bridgewater, which oversees about $5 billion in Chinese investments, according to Bloomberg. He distanced himself from his former boss and best-selling author Ray Dalio, who seemed to downplay Beijing’s repression by comparing the Chinese government to a “strict parent.” (Dalio later clarified his comments.) For Oz, it’s fodder for more ads. See here:
In a response ad, McCormick claims that he fought in the 1991 Gulf War to “fight Communism,” which would have been news to Saddam Hussein, a Baathist, who crushed the Iraqi Communist Party. “In combat, we face down Chinese weapons,” says McCormick. In a spectacular non sequitur, a narrator says of the West Point grad, “And like Trump, no one fought China harder for tough trade deals.”
The Republican obsession with China has even become a part of gubernatorial races.
This spring, GOP gubernatorial candidate Don Huffines attacked Texas Governor Greg Abbott for being soft on China. (Last we checked, the governor has no State Department or treaty-making power.)
Huffines claimed that Abbott put Texan taxpayer dollars into Chinese investments—an allusion to Texas’s state pension system, which does have investments in Chinese companies but is not managed by the governor and is only partially funded by tax revenue. Huffines referred to the coronavirus as “the Wuhan” and said he would ban Chinese nationals from attending state universities and Chinese companies from purchasing state utilities. Abbott beat Huffines, but the former state legislator has been credited with pushing the governor to the right.
Ohio may have the nation’s Trumpiest primary. Among the seven Republicans seeking the open U.S. Senate seat, only one says the 2020 election was legitimate. As for China, in a recent forum, two candidates almost came to blows over who was soft on Beijing.
At the March event, former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel accused the businessman Mike Gibbons—who led in the polls—of owning stock in a Chinese petroleum company and selling Ohio-based businesses, including a police accessory company, to a Shanghai-based firm. Mandel hoped that would be a “gotcha” moment. Instead, the two men stood up and got in each other’s faces. (Reporters have painstakingly replayed video of the confrontation like the Zapruder film, trying to determine, amid poor audio, which Republican called the other a “pussy.”) The following week, Gibbons issued a press release with a doctored image of Mandel holding a Chinese flag mask and decried what he dubbed the former treasurer’s personal investment ties to Beijing. But that was pretty weak tea. Mandel’s Red China investments turned out to be all-American companies like Time Warner (now Warner Bros. Discovery) and General Electric. It would be hard to invest in a major American corporation that has no China ties.
Gibbons, though, is tenacious. He’s still ripping into the former NFL player Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee in 2016. He’s also taken a swipe at LeBron James to chide the NBA’s ties to China. (Never mind that James’s longtime run as a Cleveland Cavalier before decamping to the Los Angeles Lakers, plus his upbringing in Akron, still make him a favorite in northeast Ohio, if not most of the state.) “I know the threat China poses to our economy because I have sat across the negotiating table from dozens of so-called ‘businessmen’ from China who are corrupt, stealing our technology and trading secrets while answering to the Chinese Communist Party,” Gibbons wrote in an op-ed.
After their exchange, Gibbons released an ad on Facebook and Instagram calling Mandel “weak on China” and attacked his investments again—claiming that, as state treasurer, he “loaned your money to Chinese business interests.” That damning line turned out to be a reference to Ohio’s public investments in shadowy firms such as Apple that do business in China. Had Gibbons called Mandel bigoted, he might have been on firmer ground: The former treasurer ran a Twitter poll asking if “Muslim terrorists” or “Mexican gangbangers” commit more crimes. Mandel could also be charged with MAGA suck-up of the year: His campaign slogan is “Pro-God, Pro-Gun, Pro-Trump.” Mandel, for his part, says he’s the man to take on China, which, he claimed at a debate, created COVID to get back at Trump for the trade war.
And then there’s J. D. Vance, the one-time Never Trumper, Yale Law grad, and Hillbilly Elegy author, who earned Trump’s endorsement. He blames China for the opioid epidemic, economic decline, and inflation. (The last two might seem incompatible.) On the campaign trail with Donald Trump Jr., Vance asked about both Google and Facebook, “How have we gotten in a position where the greatest country in the world allows a company in bed with China to censor American conservatives and to control our entire country?” Then he explained the secret mission of Google and the Chinese Communist Party is to normalize transgender people. “I encourage you to go home and type into Google, ‘Can a man become pregnant?’” Vance, to his credit, has saner moments when he faults American leaders for creating an economy in which offshoring and the erosion of data privacy have become common and promises to raise corporate taxes.
To be fair, Representative Tim Ryan, the likely Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate seat in Ohio, is a trade hawk with harsh words for Beijing. Youngstown’s congressman is running a tough-on-China ad despite pushback from Asian American groups. The spot repeats in a nursery rhyme style, “China is out-manufacturing us left and right; left and right; left and right.” That’s tough, but it’s not false, let alone bonkers, unlike the GOP ads.
For GOP candidates, China bashing is equivalent to their obsessions with critical race theory or grooming-and-pedophilia—kerosene to fire up the base and own the libs.
Consider two Missouri Republicans who are vying to replace retiring U.S. Senator Roy Blunt. The Erics—former Governor Greitens and former state Attorney General Schmitt—hound each other for being weak on China. In an ad, Greitens plays a clip of Schmitt, then the state treasurer, appearing in 2017 on China Global Television Network, talking up Missouri’s economic ties with China. (Greitens’s Senate bid comes after he resigned as Missouri governor following accusations of the physical abuse of his mistress and impeachment proceedings led by state House Republicans.) In a spot subtly entitled “Mao Money,” Schmitt accuses Greitens of aiding Beijing’s economic ascension, highlighting the former governor’s (later aborted) plan to use tax credits to entice Chinese airlines to build a hub at the St. Louis airport. If the point is lost on anyone, the Schmitt spot includes the Chinese flag and fireworks. In the most fitting encapsulation of the Republicans’ Chinese madness, the two ads aired during the Winter Olympics and ended with the same boneheaded line about their opponent: “Good for China, bad for Missouri.”