This Wednesday, President Donald Trump signed a “phase one” trade agreement with China following years of economic conflict that he instigated with the country in the name of forging some kind of bold new vision for U.S.-China relations — or something. At a White House signing ceremony for the agreement, Vice President Mike Pence himself tried to praise Trump, but in reality, there was a fittingly absurd undertone to his remarks. He cited a Chinese proverb, which he used as attempted praise for Trump, although in reality, that proverb is used as an explanation for why morally bankrupt people get ahead. Whether or not Pence had ever heard of the original context, it was fitting!
After rambling on with desperate accolades for the president that completely and utterly ignored the economic development that unfolded under Barack Obama’s presidential administration, Pence insisted:
‘Mr. President, you know there’s an ancient Chinese proverb that says, ‘Men see only the present, but heaven sees the future.’ So let today be the beginning of a brighter future, more prosperous for the American people, the Chinese people, and the world.’
But hilariously, again — that proverb was originally used as an explanation for the prosperity of terrible people.
Pence has publicly cited this proverb before. In late 2018, after students of Chinese culture tried to come up with its source, Quartz outlined its origin in “a Ming dynasty collection of stories called Stories Old and New, which chronicled the daily lives of people from different social classes.” In the particular story with the saying, “the King of Hell was asked why good people suffer while some bad people are able to prosper.” The proverb, pointing the questioner to a longer view of history, was used as the explanation.
The utter deference to Trump that Pence displays is troubling at best and utterly shocking at worst. The vice president of the United States is getting up in front of the world and heaping praise on Trump like the president is a mob boss and Pence is trying to get on his good side. Seriously, why is one of the main issues here how wonderful Trump supposedly is? This is political personality cult 101.
Separately, Pence also cited Trump’s supposed “commitment to a growing and prosperous America,” which has been, supposedly, “the centerpiece of your leadership.” Pence called the new trade agreement “one more example of your commitment to put American jobs and American workers first.” What does that even mean? Are they implying that Trump’s opponents don’t want a “growing and prosperous America”? At this point, Pence might as well put a crown on Trump’s head and kiss his ring; it wouldn’t make much of a difference.
According to experts who talked to CNBC, the new deal isn’t even that particularly great. Brandeis International Business School Professor Peter Petri said that the deal is “not a trade agreement but just puts an end to costly escalation that was going nowhere.” Like in the national security case of Iran, that escalation was kickstarted by Donald Trump. He got the U.S. into a mess, and now he wants credit for dragging it only barely out of it.