In the second season of “The West Wing,” originally aired way back in 2000, Sam Seaborn was writing a speech in which he wanted to call for a “permanent revolution” in education. Toby Ziegler balked, noting that it seemed like a bad idea for an American president to quote Chairman Mao. “I think we’ll stay away from quoting Communists,” the fictional White House communications director said in the episode.
Still, Seaborn brought the line to Jed Bartlet, and the fictional president recognized the “permanent revolution” line from Mao’s “Little Red Book.”
Eighteen years later, it’d be nice to have a real-world president with a similar understanding of recent history.
Donald Trump this morning published a series of tweets, several of which touted illusory progress on trade with his counterparts in Beijing. “My meeting in Argentina with President Xi of China was an extraordinary one,” the Republican wrote. “Relations with China have taken a BIG leap forward!
But as the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake noted, when discussing China, Trump would’ve been better off avoiding phrases such as “leap forward.”
But “leap forward” is a hugely fraught phrase when it comes to China. The Communist Party’s “Great Leap Forward” was an economic and social program of the late 1950s and early 1960s that aimed to modernize the country’s economy but has been linked to crippling famine and tens of millions of deaths.
The “Great Leap Forward” involved forcing villagers to live in communes. This disrupted China’s agriculture and, when combined with serious weather problems, led to the “Great Famine” – sometimes referred to as the largest man-made disaster in history.
Estimates vary, but by any fair measure, tens of millions of people died during China’s “Great Leap Forward.” The initiative was abandoned a few years into the experiment.
I imagine some of the president’s allies may argue that the tweet was deliberate, and that the “leap forward” reference was intended to needle his Chinese rivals at a delicate diplomatic moment.
But I very seriously doubt this overly generous explanation. As the Post’s article added, this president has used all kinds of phrases with difficult histories – “America First” and “enemy of the people” stand out – without demonstrating any real understanding of their meanings or significance.
My best guess: Trump, who’s not much of a reader, stumbled onto this line without any forethought at all.