Donald Trump’s campaign strategy is straight out of the Chinese Communist Party’s playbook

The force of red.
The force of red.
Image: Reuters/Scott Audette
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Donald Trump thinks he won the second presidential debate on Oct. 9 with a strategy of constant interruption, question dodging, and threatening his opponent with jail. Since then, he’s battled against an avalanche of accusations of sexual harassment, assault, and inappropriate behavior, by alternately smearing his critics or calling them liars, or attacking his presidential opponent Hillary Clinton and the media.

In that sense, the Republican presidential candidate, a self-professed admirer of Russian president Vladimir Putin, seems to have taken quite a few pages out of the Chinese Communist Party’s playbook.

Of course, China’s party leaders don’t need to partake in any televised debates to win an election—they see debates as a farce forced upon politicians in rotten Western democracies. Still, top party members do have to contend with opponents, at home, abroad, and even internally, from time to time, whether it’s denouncing criticism as a foreign plot or attacking anyone who dares to criticize the party in the first place.

Here are some tips from the Trump/CCP playbook that Trump employed flawlessly during the last debate.

1. Create an alternative reality

First of all, create an alternative reality to get an edge in the debate. Your loyal supporters or citizens don’t care that your words contradict what they know to be true, or even what you said earlier. As to the so-called fact checkers, of course they have an evil agenda.

According to Trump during the debate, he never supported the Iraq War, never advised anyone to look for a sex tape on a former beauty queen, and never suggested that climate change is a hoax led by China. All of these lies (and many others) are easily disproved by anyone with access to Google.

This is an oft-used strategy of the Communist Party’s governance of China: Official textbooks teach students the entire South China Sea belongs to China, without mentioning the international law or conflicting claims. State media selectively reports news events that cast Beijing in a good light, and has been caught fabricating quotes to make the party look good.

You can do this with words, or with numbers. When economic data shows something you don’t like, for example, just make up some new economic data.

2. Create a diversion

Trump was grilled by moderator Anderson Cooper during the second debate about whether he realized a video featuring him discussing grabbing women by their genitals was “sexual assault.” He answered, “No I didn’t say that at all,” though the video had been viewed by tens of millions already. Then he launched into a meandering attack on ISIL (from NPR’s transcript) and a rehash of his own platform that began:

I don’t think you understood what was said. This was locker room talk. I’m not proud of it. I apologized to my family. I apologized to the American people. Certainly I’m not proud of it, but this is locker room talk. You know when we have a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads, where you have men frankly drowning people in steel cages, where you have wars and horrible, horrible sites all over where you have so many bad things happening, this is like medieval times, we haven’t seen anything like this—the carnage all over the world—and they look and they see. Can you imagine the people that are frankly doing so well against us with ISIS and they look at our country and they see what’s going on. Yes, I’m very embarrassed by it. I hate it. But it’s locker room talk and it’s one of those things. I will knock the hell out of ISIS, we’re going to defeat ISIS. ISIS happened a number of years ago in a vacuum that was left because of bad judgment and I will tell you I will take care of ISIS.

When asked about something deeply embarrassing, never answer it. Instead, seize the chance to sell your prepared talking points, even if they’re completely irrelevant. As long as you go on with your monologue for a while, everyone will likely forget what the question was in the first place.

Addressing the accusations made by a People magazine reporter that Trump forcibly kissed her during a campaign stop this week, Trump suggested she was too ugly for him to have attacked. “Look at her. Look at her words. You tell me what you think. I don’t think so,” he said.

The Communist Party is a master of this trick too, but in a more organized way than Trump. The party’s propaganda arm fakes 488 million social media posts a year in order to sway public opinion. Their strategy is to avoid debates with critics and instead distract public attention by “cheerleading for China, the revolutionary history of the Communist Party, or other symbols of the regime,” a recent Harvard University study said. For example, the Harvard researchers found that one county-level government churned out 1,100 posts about the so-called “China Dream” and local economic development, following the outbreak of riots in the Muslim-majority Xinjiang autonomous region in July 2013.

3. The best defense is being offensive

If, unfortunately, you still continue to face some embarrassing questions, remember: The best defense is being offensive. Don’t spend a second defending yourself, because you know you can’t. Attack your opponent on the same grounds that he or she attacked you.

This has been Trump’s move exactly. When pushed on his lewd comments about women, he blasted Bill Clinton’s purported sexual assaults, and even invited his accusers to the debate.

China likes to blast America’s human rights record when it is criticized on human rights. After 12 nations, led by the US, denounced China’s human rights record during a UN meeting this March, the Chinese ambassador to the UN fired back that the US is too violent and racist to criticize others. Beijing has also published an annual report on human rights in the US (but no other country) for 16 years, in response to the US’s annual report on China. ”Since the U.S. government refuses to hold up a mirror to look at itself, it has to be done with other people’s help,” reads the latest report published in April.

4. Blame your enemy for everything

Now that you’ve deflected and diverted, it is time for some fresh attacks. One principle: Blame your opponent for everything. It might sound crazy, but it seems to work well because the public loves conspiracy theories. Speak affirmatively, and watch your enemy tremble.

At one point during the first debate, Hillary Clinton said that “I’m going to be blamed for everything that’s ever happened.” Trump jumped in: “Why not?” Over the course of the two debates, Trump blamed Clinton for everything from the “birther” movement to ISIL’s rise to loopholes in tax laws.

It was similar to the Communist Party’s blame game. The party is always finding “foreign hostile forces,” especially the US, behind all of China’s troubles. Their crimes include inciting separatism and stealing territory in the South China Sea, to name a few. To make the Chinese public buy the theory, the party churns out propaganda rap songs and cartoons carrying that very message.

5. Threaten to put him or her in jail

You can potentially deal a fatal blow to your opponent by threatening to put him or her in jail if you win. If you say you have every reason to do so because your opponent is a liar, a traitor, or a subversive agitator, supporters will admire you as a defender of the law.

“Because you’d be in jail”—Trump’s chilling threat to prosecute Clinton if he’s elected—is an unprecedented statement in any recent US presidential election.

Political purges, though, have a history in the Communist Party. Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, in which millions of supposed separatists were imprisoned, or killed, is the most obvious example. Half a century later, president Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign—which has netted over a hundred high-ranking officials and thousands more in the lower ranks so far—has been criticized by some China watchers as a political purge echoing Mao. The party is also cracking down on civil society, rounding up hundreds of human rights lawyers, labor activists, dissidents, and journalists in jail.

6. Play the victim card

Last but not least, sometimes you need to soften your image a bit by playing the victim. Say the debate is rigged against you. Say that you are fighting against not only your opponent but the moderators, the system, the biased media, and the whole of society (excluding your supporters). You are a lone hero.

Trump protested that the second debate was a “one on three” after one of the moderators tried to move on to a question from the audience without following up on Clinton’s email issue. Later he repeatedly complained that the moderators were harder on him than on Clinton, despite the fact that he was given a full minute more to talk.

The Communist Party takes things a bit further. Beijing says it “neither accepts nor acknowledges” an international tribunal’s decision to rule against most of China’s claims in the South China Sea because it was made “out of bad faith.” The People’s Daily, the Party’s top mouthpiece newspaper, called the decision a “farce” backed by a US-led conspiracy—despite the fact that it reflects international law that China agreed to abide by.

On July 1, the 95th anniversary of the party’s founding, Xi gave a speech (link in Chinese) to say that in modern times, the Chinese people “have suffered unprecedented misery” thanks to Western powers’ invasion and the feudal Qing dynasty’s corruption. Thankfully, though, the people ”never yielded” and “rose up to fight.” Since then, China has sped towards a “people’s democracy” under the leadership of the Community Party.

It was a speech worthy of Trump.