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?
And what that tells us about the fate of Apple in China... That meant I was almost certainly a secondary or even tertiary receiver of the phone — China’s gift-giving culture is all about regifting — but back then, the Apple brand carried enough cachet that my father’s friend still saw it as good enough to give a close friend’s daughter, if not quite prized enough to present to a business partner... the news just confirmed what we already knew: China’s domestic brands have made huge strides in the years since 2012, creating new features and products that take into account what Chinese users want, for a small fraction of the price. Apple, meanwhile, has mostly failed to localize or reinvent itself, on the assumption that global cachet would be enough.
The homegrown groundswell began with a little-known brand called Xiaomi, which burst onto the scene in the early 2010s as one of the first brands in China to have its own operating system, and offered high-speed processing on the cheap. At first it appeared to cater to a completely different market than Apple. Selling entirely online, Xiaomi offered both a low-end model — the Redmi for as low as 699 yuan (then under $150) — and a higher-end model that was still far cheaper than the cheapest iPhone (less than 2,000 yuan, then under $350).
But with time, the useful features on Xiaomi products, as well as those of its competitors like Huawei and OPPO, combined with the price, began to outweigh the increasingly limited glamour of the iPhone. I myself transitioned to a high-end Xiaomi from an iPhone in early 2014 after a young professional friend of mine, who worked in marketing in Shanghai, raved about the Xiaomi Mi Note, which is one of the big-screen models, or “phablets,” that have long been popular in China and East Asia, where many prefer the bigger screens — Huawei’s latest measures a whopping 7.2 inches — ideal for taking selfies and watching TV dramas. (Apple released its Plus series in late 2014 with larger handsets, which did send its sales shooting up in China — but also added $100 to an already expensive price tag.)
Apple also long resisted the rise of another important local feature: the dual SIM card system, a component that may sound boring but for Chinese people has become essential. In China, where many young people have never owned laptops, phones have become all-in-one devices — part television, part computer, part phone. Transitioning between two SIM cards on all other cell brands is a seamless process: one card for streaming and downloading at cheaper rates, the other one for making calls. Growing international tourism has also raised demand for phones that can accommodate a second, foreign SIM — and yet for years, Apple didn’t budge. The company finally gave in to the dual SIM card in the form of special models for China and Hong Kong last fall.
It’s telling that the main example of Apple localizing its products to China in the last few years was a special model gold-colored iPhone. First introduced in 2013, it was a clear play for the Chinese market, and was, admittedly, a huge hit on the mainland. Many joked that the gold iPhone was targeted at the tuhao, a recent term that roughly translates as “tasteless nouveau riche” and that mockingly refers to the wealthy who feel the need to show off. The color was even given the name tuhao jin, or tuhao gold.
But the allure of gold-colored plating — a feature focused not on user experience but aesthetics — goes only so far, it seems. And it may not be enough at this point to keep even the tuhao loyal. Huawei, China’s largest smartphone maker by market share, recently overtook Apple to move to second place globally. Its popularity among the wealthy and business class at home has shot up in recent years; its prices have been steadily rising as it shifts focus toward higher-end products. Many upper-middle-class Chinese who once owned iPhones have since switched to Huawei — including my dad.