Trump's vacuous obsession with tariffs
Good news, folks. President Trump would like you to know that in addition to being a billionaire, a television icon, and the 45th president of the United States, he is a "a Tariff Man."
What does that mean, exactly? Should we understand "Tariff Man," on the pattern of "Yale man," as someone who graduated from Tariff College and maybe Tariff Law and has a sweatshirt to prove it? Is a Tariff Man like "Spider Man," bitten by a radioactive Tariff and endowed with a super Tariff sense? Or is a Tariff Man a guy who just enjoys Tariffs, the way a Beer Man does beer?
This might seem like a pointless semantic exercise, but I am not so sure. What it reminds us is that Trump is someone who is fixated on the idea of tariffs, who understands their potential and significance without being terribly interested in the details of what it means to impose them effectively. He dissents from the mad, ahistorical consensus that it is in a nation's best interests to open her markets to the entire world unconditionally. He knows that China, which does not respect the free and open movement of people or goods or intellectual property, has benefited from this.
What he does not know is what he really wants. On more than one occasion he has given the impression that he thinks tariffs are a good strategy for increasing government revenue, as if the few billions we will collect from duties on steel are offset by the $1.5 trillion in tax cuts his administration threw out the window last December. His grasp of the newly renegotiated NAFTA appears shaky at best. He didn't even know where to sign the damn thing. While it is a significant improvement over what came before it, both for American workers and their foreign counterparts, it could and should have gone much further. Does he understand this? Does he care? Or was it just about the photo op?
The problem here is that, despite his reputation for stubbornness, Trump is fundamentally irresolute. He is the last person to defend crooked associates he will later disavow. He is the first person to heap praise upon enemies he has slandered in the vilest manner. America's participation in the 11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership died the moment Trump was inaugurated, only for the idea to be revived at the behest of the president himself, baffling everyone involved. One of the many good arguments he and his advisers had made against it in the first place was that the United States already had bilateral deals in place with six of these Asian countries. By joining TPP instead, the United States would gain nothing and concede a great deal. Those facts haven't changed but apparently Trump's mind has. Imagine that.
One fundamental point that seems to have eluded Trump over the course of the last year is that trade wars must be won at home as well as abroad. He is remarkably gifted at communicating with his base, but the only Americans who are enthusiastic about his tariff agenda are 60-something rural Democratic voters and a few online #MAGA diehards for whom "Trade War" might as well be a shoot-em-up game. He needs to explain the long-term benefits of rebalancing America's trade relationships to voters who did not learn to criticize NAFTA at their grandfathers' knees. As things stand, voters see nothing but frightening headlines.
The other front on which he is failing is the businesses affected. Protectionism only works if you actually take steps to shore up domestic industries. A naive person might think that last year's tax cuts would be more than enough to persuade corporations to hire rather than fire employees. As it stands, both Ford and General Motors are about to announce thousands of layoffs. Things are even worse further down the supply chain. In small towns like Mendon, Michigan, the loss of 83 jobs at a tiny components manufacturing plant is something that cannot be sustained. Unfortunately Trump has already thrown away the leverage he might have had with these companies. Imagine a partial tax break for manufacturers willing to hire more employees and open new plants in this country, one that was negotiated with the input of labor unions and announced alongside a presidential tour of the post-industrial Midwest. It would have been better for everyone.
This is one reason why Trump's recently announced 90-day trade ceasefire with China makes no sense. There is no reason to believe that in three months he is going to convince them to make significant concessions. But it is possible to imagine him stepping back anyway — in deference to his advisers, because he is confused about the reality of what is being offered by the other side, or out of boredom.
Trump is the wrong man for this necessary job. Unfortunately, for now he is the only one.