Trade, both with U.S. neighbors Canada and Mexico as well as with China, was a prominent issue in the first two years of President Donald Trump’s presidency, but faded in importance during the midterm election season.
Allen Carlson, associate professor in Cornell University’s Government Department and director of the China and Asia Pacific Studies program, says the midterm election results indicate identity politics will drive attitudes toward China in the coming years, rather than specific policy.
“Most of the post-election analysis is likely to focus on issues with a return to divided government in Washington. This misses a much more fundamental point: the deepening division within the country between red and blue states. The coasts and metro centers remain quite liberal, while the rural center has become even more conservative. This election was largely about identity politics and cultural values much more than it was about any specific policies.
“Despite the fact that they are arguably suffering the most as a result of the President's trade war with China, rural voters widely cast their votes for candidates on the ballot who were most closely aligned with Trump. Within such a climate I suspect China barely registered in the minds of most voters. As a result, moving forward both parties will only deal with China through the prism of what has become a zero-sum battle between them over who will govern the United States now and in 2020.
“For Democrats there is little to be gained by taking a gentler approach to China. For Republicans, China serves as convenient target upon which to project the fears of their core supporters. Above and beyond this, the President's whims, informed by the anti-free trade views of his closest advisors, will then continue to drive China policy. Given his unpredictability, this capriciousness – more than anything else coming out of Washington, D.C. – is what in all likelihood worries China's leaders the most.”