Donald Trump and Xi Jinping have the same political goals.

For Trump, it’s embodied in his slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Xi’s motto might be, “Make Communism Great Again.” Both want to return to their version of the good old days.

Before the Great Depression that began in 1929, the federal government played a limited role in the country’s economic life and little to do with social policy. The economy favored corporations, the wealthy and the rising middle class. Social programs were left mainly to private, not governmental, action.

The economic bubble burst with the Depression. Economic growth, much of its based on speculation, could no longer support big business and wild investing. In turn, much of the middle class lost jobs and was driven toward poverty.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, beginning in 1933, gave government a greater role in the economy and social policy. It pumped funds into the economy, creating jobs, and established Social Security and other support programs to provide stability and prevent a similar collapse. His plan included stronger regulation of banking and the private sector.

A tradition of limited government action was replaced by policies giving public agencies key roles in managing the economy, which remained powered by private enterprise. During the massive economic build-up for World War II, the government chose to hire corporate America to produce armaments.


Both major parties had supported the pre-Depression system. With Roosevelt, the Democrats offered the New Deal, a major departure. The GOP remained reluctant to accept a changed role for government, which gained some power to control private sector action.

The benefits of Roosevelt’s approach became imbedded in the American economy. For example, few would now advocate ending a national retirement program. But Republicans, led by Trump, would privatize programs and reduce regulation as much as possible.

Such moves would presumably make America great “again.” Trump demonizes those supporting current policies. He sees them as being more dangerous than the dictators he favors. His allies in the House seek to use their slim majority to begin reverting to the past. They try to sell their approach by promising tax cuts mostly for the wealthy.

Former president Bill Clinton once said that Trump proposed to “give you an economy you had 50 years ago, and … move you back up on the social totem pole and other people down.”

In short, making America great “again” is based on the belief that the country was greater before the New Deal and much of modern government should be unraveled.

Xi also looks back to the days when the Chinese Communist Party had the people engage in agriculture and manufacturing that were both managed by the government. Private economic activity would only be marginal. The Party would rule as a dictator on behalf of the people.


Mao Zedong had led the Communist Party to power in China. Deeply devoted to the Communist ideal, he opposed educated people who began to develop ways of thinking that departed from the simplicity of traditional Communism. But his 1958 “Great Leap Forward” was a failure leading to massive famine.

By 1966, he launched the Cultural Revolution, a disastrous back-to-the earth policy. After his death in 1976, the country began to abandon it and to allow the growth of private enterprise.

Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, sought foreign investment and economic development. Millions left the agricultural life that Mao had favored for cities where a middle class began to emerge. Prosperity and greater individual freedom grew under a reformed Communist Party.

Xi rejects Deng and pursues a return to many of the values associated with the traditional Party of Mao. He argues that his policy shows the inherent advantages of theoretical Communism over democracy.

He believes that political turbulence in the U.S. and Europe reveals the weakness of Western democracies as they emerged after World War II. He repeats the slogan, “the East rises, the West falls.”

Here is where Xi and Trump are on common ground. They both see the development of liberal democracy as opposing the natural economic system — Trump’s unfettered individual freedom and Xi’s dictatorship of the workers through the Chinese Communist Party. Both favor authoritarian government, while claiming their approaches are in the best interest of the people.

Both ignore reality. The Great Depression, an economic catastrophe, and the Cultural Revolution, a disastrous failure, were replaced by reforms yielding stability, growth and a rising middle class. Yet the success of these reforms may have dulled popular sensitivity to their ongoing value.

Efforts by leaders to turn the clock back will ultimately fail. People are likely to recognize that the benefits of a combination of private economic initiative and government protection of the common interest are hardwired into their lives. Trump and Xi can make much trouble, but they cannot succeed.

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman. 

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