The American people are collateral damage in the president’s trade conflicts.
The Trump administration has been trying out a fresh line with the American public of late: Patriotism requires sacrifice.
As the president’s trade wars drag on, putting the economic bite on a growing number of Americans, his team is scrambling to put a nationalist gloss on his protectionist gamble, spinning it as a noble crusade in which the individual interest must be subordinated to the greater good.
Sure Americans “pay a little bit,” Mr. Trump acknowledged in a speech to real estate professionals in mid-May. “But it’s worth it.”
Concerned about losing support among rural voters caught in the tariff crossfire, he recently issued a Twitter proclamation that America’s “Patriot Farmers” would eventually be “the biggest beneficiaries of what is happening now.” Until then, he plans to subsidize impacted producers. Last Thursday, the Agriculture Department announced that it would provide up to $16 billion in farm aid, to be financed, the president has said, using the “massive Tariffs being paid to the United States for allowing China, and others, to do business with us.”
Mr. Trump failed to mention who pays those “massive Tariffs.” (Hint: Americans.) But he has never been one to let details get in the way of a good plotline.
The president’s chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, has been more frank about the United States-China showdown. “Both sides will suffer,” he said after trade talks with China broke down earlier this month. But the “possible improvement in trade and exports and open markets” make the suffering “worthwhile,” he added. “You’ve got to do what you got to do.”
Republican lawmakers, usually a free-trade-loving bunch, have taken up the cause as well. Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania allowed that tariffs are “absolutely painful and dislocating,” but he reasoned that, someday, Americans might look back and say they were “worth the price.”
And when it comes to wrapping tariffs in the flag, no one can touch Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. Yes, the trade war will require “some sacrifices on the part of Americans,” he said, but the costs “will be pretty minimal” compared with those paid by American troops serving overseas and our “fallen heroes.”
Give Mr. Cotton debate points: Few would dispute that being killed in action is more of a hardship than paying a little extra for spark plugs or baseball mitts or live eels.
Fewer still would make such a tasteless comparison.
Previous presidents have appealed to Americans’ patriotism in wartime. In peacetime, President Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural entreaty — “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” — inspired an entire generation.
The Trumpian call to duty, however, is a particularly bold — even counterintuitive — choice for a president whose core message has always been that he can save anxious Americans from having to make tough choices, to adapt to economic changes or to face scary cultural shifts. His pledge to Make America Great Again has never been about helping move the nation into the future, but about easing it back into a more comforting past. In his capacity as Strong Leader, he has vowed to take care of everything, and it is all going to be “so easy.”
There is, in fact, no problem so big or so complex that Mr. Trump has not boasted of his ability to fix it quickly and painlessly.
- Repealing and replacing Obamacare with a better, cheaper system? Easy.
- Returning domestic manufacturing to its heyday? Easy.
- Lowering gas prices?
- Ending the drug problem?
- Dealing with China? Easy, easy and easy.
- Restoring cultural and economic security by erecting a big, beautiful border wall that Mexico will pay for? Piece. Of. Cake.
Of all Mr. Trump’s grandiose claims, his pledge to restore lost manufacturing jobs remains among the most heartbreaking. “Don’t move. Don’t sell your houses,” he soothed voters in the Rust Belt town of Youngstown, Ohio, in 2017. “They’re all coming back,” he promised of the jobs and prosperity.
In the meantime, Mr. Trump has no intention of abandoning his penchant for making impossible promises. At a rally in Montoursville, Pa., last week, he went on and on about how he had saved American industry, saying, “Remember the old days, we actually made our own product.” The president lamented the tens of thousands of factories that have been shuttered post-Nafta, before proclaiming triumphantly, “They’re all coming back!”
Are they, Mr. President?
A few Republicans have managed—really—to work successfully with the president. Here’s what the new speaker could learn from them.
But there’s no formula for successfully negotiating with this mercurial, ad hoc chief executive. Pelosi’s first attempt to do so, an agreement in September 2017 to protect the Dreamers from deportation in exchange for border security funding, fell apart not long after it was announced.
Still, there’s no reason to think Pelosi, or anyone in the nation’s capital, can’t find a way to a win with Trump. Here’s what we’ve learned about the art of making a deal with Trump from the few successful people in Washington who have figured out how to get what they want out of the president.
Convince Him He’ll Be Loved
Trump may want nothing more than to be well-liked and appreciated. The bipartisan criminal justice reform bill seems to have been sold to him as an opportunity to do just that. Versions of the First Step Act, a major reform that liberalizes federal prison and sentencing laws, had floundered in Congress for years. The policy already had support from across the political spectrum—but it needed a Republican president who could provide political cover to bring enough members of the GOP on board.
Trump wasn’t an obvious champion for sentencing reform. He ran a campaign promising “law and order” and selected the tough-on-crime Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Sessions’ Justice Department had issued reports critical of the bill. The president has suggested that convicted drug dealers deserved the death penalty. To get his support, the criminal-justice reformers would need to conduct a conversion.
The evangelist was White House adviser Jared Kushner, who, all accounts say, worked hard to persuade his father-in-law. Kushner met with everyone from members of the Congressional Black Caucus to Koch-funded interest groups to the news media to bolster an already large coalition. It helped that Kushner was able to deliver plenty of groups and individuals on the right.
“I think the broad popularity of the policy was the gateway,” says one of the bill’s advocates, who watched the process at the White House up close. “The president was also given a booklet of dozens of conservative organizations and individuals making supportive statements on the bill to show grassroots political support. And then it took some convincing that law enforcement was on board.”
The last piece proved crucial, because there’s perhaps no interest group Trump cherishes more than law enforcement. The marquee names—the
- Fraternal Order of Police, the
- International Association of Chiefs of Police, the
- National District Attorneys Association—
were enough to get the president on board. With seemingly few people opposed (Tom Cotton, otherwise a devoted Trump ally, the most prominent) and even staunch critics in the media like Van Jones making the trek to kiss Trump’s ring at the White House, Kushner and his partners succeeded in selling Trump on the most important provision of the First Step Act: Mr. President, you will be loved for signing it.
It won’t be easy for Pelosi, but the Democratic speaker may be able to use similar tactics to goad Trump into supporting some bipartisan health-care initiatives. The administration has already begun proposing some form of federal intervention to lower prescription drug prices, while Democrats have long argued that Medicare should negotiate with Big Pharma on bringing down drug costs. Some kind of compromise bill could get the support of both Capitol Hill and the White House. Your older, Medicare-using base will love you for it, Pelosi might tell the president. That would get his attention.
Remind Him of His Campaign Promises
Earlier this month, Trump and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul were having one of their frequent conversations about the American military presence in both Syria and Afghanistan. Paul, a persistent, longtime critic of the continued deployment of troops in the Middle East, has found the strongest ally of his political career on the issue with Trump.
After their discussion, Paul sent the president some news articles supporting his view that the time was right to withdraw from Syria, says top Paul aide Doug Stafford, who says Trump sent back a note alerting him that he would “see some movement on this soon.” On December 19, Trump announced the forthcoming withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops fighting ISIS in Syria. The move was resisted by just about everyone around Trump, inside and outside the administration, including John Bolton, Jim Mattis and Lindsey Graham. All, except Paul.
“I think people mistake it like Rand is trying to get him to do what Rand wants. But this is what Donald Trump ran on,” says Stafford. “Rand sees his role more as keeping the president where he wants to be and where he said he would be against some people who are inside of the White House and other senators who are trying to push him off of his beliefs and his position.”