And he has only himself to blame.When he isn’t raving about how the deep state is conspiring against him, Donald Trump loves to boast about the economy, claiming to have achieved unprecedented things. As it happens, none of his claims are true. While both G.D.P. and employment have registered solid growth, the Trump economy simply seems to have continued a long expansion that began under Barack Obama. In fact, someone who looked only at the past 10 years of data would never guess that an election had taken place.
But now it’s starting to look as if Trump really will achieve something unique: He may well be the first president of modern times to preside over a slump that can be directly attributed to his own policies, rather than bad luck.
There has always been a deep unfairness about the relationship between economics and politics: Presidents get both credit and blame for events that usually have little to do with their actions.
- Jimmy Carter didn’t cause the stagflation that put Ronald Reagan in the White House;
- George H.W. Bush didn’t cause the economic weakness that elected Bill Clinton; even
- George W. Bush bears at most tangential responsibility for the 2008 financial crisis.
More recently, the “mini-recession” of 2015-16, a slump in manufacturing that may have tipped the scale to Trump, was caused mainly by a plunge in energy prices rather than any of Barack Obama’s policies.
But unlike previous presidents, who were just unlucky to preside over slumps, Trump has done this to himself, largely by choosing to wage a trade war he insisted would be “good, and easy to win.”
The link between the trade war and agriculture’s woes is obvious: America’s farmers are deeply dependent on export markets, China in particular. So they’re hurting badly, despite a huge financial bailout that is already more than twice as big as the Obama administration’s auto bailout. (Part of the problem may be that the bailout money is flowing disproportionately to the biggest, richest farms.)
Shipping may also seem an obvious victim when tariffs reduce international trade, although it’s not just an international issue; domestic trucking is also in recession.
The manufacturing slump is more surprising. After all, America runs a large trade deficit in manufactured goods, so you might expect that tariffs, by forcing buyers to turn to domestic suppliers, would be good for the sector. That’s surely what Trump and his advisers thought would happen.
But that’s not how it has worked out. Instead, the trade war has clearly hurt U.S. manufacturing. Indeed, it has done considerably more damage than even Trump critics like yours truly expected.
The Trumpist trade warriors, it turns out, missed two key points. First, many U.S. manufacturers depend heavily on imported parts and other inputs; the trade war is disrupting their supply chains. Second, Trump’s trade policy isn’t just protectionist, it’s erratic, creating vast uncertainty for businesses both here and abroad. And businesses are responding to that uncertainty by putting plans for investment and job creation on hold.
So the tweeter in chief has bungled his way into a Trump slump, even if it isn’t a full-blown recession, at least so far. It’s clearly going to hurt him politically, notably because of the contrast between his big talk and not-so-great reality. Also, the pain in manufacturing seems to be falling especially hard on those swing states Trump took by tiny margins in 2016, giving him the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote.
And while many presidents have found themselves confronting politically damaging economic adversity, Trump is, as I said, unique in that he really did this to himself.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that he will accept responsibility for his mistakes. For the past few months he has been trying to portray the Federal Reserve as the root of all economic evil, even though current interest rates are well below those his own officials predicted in their triumphalist economic projections.
My guess, however, is that Fed-bashing will prove ineffective as a political strategy, not least because most Americans probably have at best a vague idea of what the Fed is and what it does.
So what will come next? Trump being Trump, it’s a good bet that he’ll soon be denouncing troubling economic data as fake news; I wouldn’t be surprised to see political pressure on the statistical agencies to report better numbers. Hey, if it can happen to the National Weather Service, why not the Bureau of Economic Analysis (which reports, by the way, to Wilbur Ross)?And somehow or other this will turn out to be another deep-state conspiracy, probably orchestrated by George Soros.
The scary thing is that around 35 percent of Americans will probably believe whatever excuses Trump comes up with. But that won’t be enough to save him.
The pain is real, but the coercion isn’t.Donald Trump’s declaration that “trade wars are good, and easy to win” will surely go down in the history books as a classic utterance — but not in a good way. Instead it will go alongside Dick Cheney’s prediction, on the eve of the Iraq war, that “we will, in fact, be welcomed as liberators.” That is, it will be used to illustrate the arrogance and ignorance that so often drives crucial policy decisions.
For the reality is that Trump isn’t winning his trade wars. True, his tariffs have hurt China and other foreign economies. But they’ve hurt America too; economists at the New York Fed estimate that the average household will end up paying more than $1,000 a year in higher prices.
And there’s no hint that the tariffs are achieving Trump’s presumed goal, which is to pressure other countries into making significant policy changes.
What, after all, is a trade war? Neither economists nor historians use the term for situations in which a country imposes tariffs for domestic political reasons, as the United States routinely did until the 1930s. No, it’s only a “trade war” if the goal of the tariffs is coercion — imposing pain on other countries to force them to change their policies in our favor.
All the tariffs Trump imposed on Canada and Mexico in an attempt to force a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement led to a new agreement so similar to the old one that you need a magnifying glass to see the differences. (And the new one may not even make it through Congress.)
And at the recent G20 summit, Trump agreed to a pause in the China trade war, holding off on new tariffs, in return, as far as we can tell, for some vaguely conciliatory language.
But why are Trump’s trade wars failing? Mexico is a small economy next to a giant, so you might think — Trump almost certainly did think — that it would be easy to browbeat. China is an economic superpower in its own right, but it sells far more to us than it buys in return, which you might imagine makes it vulnerable to U.S. pressure. So why can’t Trump impose his economic will?
There are, I’d argue, three reasons.
First, belief that we can easily win trade wars reflects the same kind of solipsism that has so disastrously warped our Iran policy. Too many Americans in positions of power seem unable to grasp the reality that we’re not the only country with a distinctive culture, history and identity, proud of our independence and extremely unwilling to make concessions that feel like giving in to foreign bullies. “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute” isn’t a uniquely American sentiment.
In particular, the idea that China of all nations will agree to a deal that looks like a humiliating capitulation to America is just crazy.
Second, Trump’s “tariff men” are living in the past, out of touch with the realities of the modern economy. They talk nostalgically about the policies of William McKinley. But back then the question, “Where was this thing made?” generally had a simple answer. These days, almost every manufactured good is the product of a global value chain that crosses multiple national borders.
This raises the stakes: U.S. business was hysterical at the prospect of disrupting Nafta, because so much of its production relies on Mexican inputs. It also scrambles the effects of tariffs: when you tax goods assembled in China but with many of the components from Korea or Japan, assembly doesn’t shift to America, it just moves to other Asian countries like Vietnam.
Finally, Trump’s trade war is unpopular — in fact, it polls remarkably poorly — and so is he.
This leaves him politically vulnerable to foreign retaliation. China may not buy as much from America as it sells, but its agricultural market is crucial to farm-state voters Trump desperately needs to hold on to. So Trump’s vision of an easy trade victory is turning into a political war of attrition that he, personally, is probably less able to sustain than China’s leadership, even though China’s economy is feeling the pain.
So how will this end? Trade wars almost never have clear victors, but they often leave long-lasting scars on the world economy. The light-truck tariffs America imposed in 1964 in an unsuccessful effort to force Europe to buy our frozen chickens are still in place, 55 years later.
Trump’s trade wars are vastly bigger than the trade wars of the past, but they’ll probably have the same result. No doubt Trump will try to spin some trivial foreign concessions as a great victory, but the actual result will just be to make everyone poorer. At the same time, Trump’s casual trashing of past trade agreements has badly damaged American credibility, and weakened the international rule of law.
Oh, and did I mention that McKinley’s tariffs were deeply unpopular, even at the time? In fact, in his final speech on the subject, McKinley offered what sounds like a direct response to — and rejection of — Trumpism, declaring that “commercial wars are unprofitable,” and calling for “good will and friendly trade relations.”