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?
The latest revelations about President Trump’s past tax reports underscore the importance of examining his more recent returns.
The disclosure of Mr. Trump’s tax returns could also help to verify, or falsify, a range of assertions that Mr. Trump has made about his own life — stories that he used to build support for his candidacy and continues to use to build support for his policies.
One straightforward fact-check: Mr. Trump repeatedly said he would not benefit from the tax cuts passed by Congress in 2017. He said that he would be a “big loser” and that the plan “is going to cost me a fortune.” The claim is absurd on its face. Virtually every major analysis of the tax cut has shown that wealthy people like Mr. Trump are the primary beneficiaries. But despite Mr. Trump’s best efforts, facts remain stubborn things with special power, and the release of his tax returns would allow a precise calculation of just how much money the president put into his own pocket.
Reporting on Mr. Trump’s financial past by Times reporters, including David Barstow, Susanne Craig and Russ Buettner has already undermined the president’s confected image as a hugely successful businessman. In a piece published Tuesday evening, Ms. Craig and Mr. Buettner reported Mr. Trump “appears to have lost more money than nearly any other individual American taxpayer” year after year in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. Mr. Trump has long said he suffered setbacks during the recession in the early 1990s, and then bounced back to rebuild his fortunes. But tax records and other sources show Mr. Trump lost big during the boom years of the late 1980s.
Far less is known about Mr. Trump’s more recent financial dealings. His federal disclosures provide estimates of revenue rather than profits: In 2017, for example, Mr. Trump reported that his Irish golf business had revenues of $14 million, while a separate report to Irish regulators said the business lost about $2 million. For most of Mr. Trump’s ventures, there is no public account of the bottom line.
A lot of conservatives with big platforms were very, very angry at Trump this week.
If the government shuts down tonight over President Donald Trump’s demand for $5 billion for a border wall, feel free to blame conservative punditry.
This week Ann Coulter described Trump as a gutless “sociopath” who, without a border wall, “will just have been a joke presidency who scammed the American people.”
Radio host Rush Limbaugh said on his show Wednesday that without the $5 billion, any signing of a budget stop gap would show “Trump gets nothing and the Democrats get everything.”
Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy said that without wall funding, “the swamp wins,” adding that Trump will “look like a loser” without wall funding and stating, “This is worth shutting down” the government.
There’s no way around it: A lot of people on the right are very upset with Trump (and each other) right now. And they’re taking it out on the president — on his favorite television network, on talk radio, on podcasts, and online — and it’s worked to put the pressure on him. Trump has abruptly changed course to demand $5 billion for a border wall (a demand the Senate isn’t likely to give in to). And now the government is facing a “very long” shutdown.
In the words of Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), referring to Coulter and Limbaugh, “We have two talk-radio show hosts who basically influenced the president, and we’re in a shutdown mode. It’s just—that’s tyranny, isn’t it?”
.. Republican voters are still solidly behind Trump (his approval rating among Republicans polled by Gallup is at 86 percent). But unlike some portions of Trump’s base, the voices of the party who supported Trump because of what he could do as president rather than who he is as president are deeply displeased with him.
Some on the right are upset about the administration’s decision to pull out of Syria and, perhaps, Afghanistan — and are very worried by news of James Mattis’s resignation from his role as defense secretary.
Others are angry that more than two years into Republican control of all three branches of the federal government, Planned Parenthood still hasn’t been fully defunded. Then there’s that executive order banning bump stocks. And the continued existence of Obamacare.
.. But this week, many of the right’s biggest names were more or less united on one particular issue, with Fox News pundits and some of Trump’s most important surrogates and supporters leading the way: build a wall, or you’re done. As Fox News’s Laura Ingraham said on her show Wednesday night, “Not funding the wall is going to go down as one of the worst, worst things to have happened to this administration.”
.. They urged a government shutdown (and even the closing of the United States’ border with Mexico) in full knowledge that Trump was listening, even as Republican senators prepared to fly home for the holidays with no expectations they’d need to be present for a vote to keep the government open.
House Freedom Caucus Chair Mark Meadows said Wednesday that Trump’s “base will go crazy” if border wall money wasn’t provided in the stopgap government funding measure, and he was joined by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), who tweetedabout wall funding with the hashtag #DoWhatWeSaid.
That same day, Ann Coulter published a syndicated piece titled “Gutless President in a Wall-Less Country,” in which she wrote that contrary to what some might believe, many of Trump’s supporters were well aware that he was a “gigantic douchebag.” She wrote, “If anything, Trump’s vulgar narcissism made his vow to build a wall more believable. Respectable politicians had made similar promises over the years — and they always betrayed the voters. Maybe it took a sociopath to ignore elite opinion and keep his word.”
But she added, “Unfortunately, that’s all he does: talk. He’s not interested in doing anything that would require the tiniest bit of effort.”
That piece may have gotten her unfollowed on Twitter by the president. Then she went on the Daily Caller’s podcast to say that the entire purpose of Trump’s presidency appears to be “making sure Ivanka and Jared can make money.” But by Wednesday evening, Trump was arguing that the wall would in fact be built, “one way or the other,” saying that perhaps the military could construct it.
On Thursday, Trump said during a signing ceremony for the farm bill that “any measure the funds the government must include border security,” but added, that the wall is “also called steel slats, so that I give them a little bit of an out — steel slats. … We don’t use the word ‘wall’ necessarily.”
That same day, Rush Limbaugh said on his radio show that Trump had contacted him and said, “if whatever happens in the House and Senate comes back to him with no allocation of $5 billion for the wall, then he’s going to veto it.” But that doesn’t seem to have soothed many of conservative media’s loudest voices, like Coulter, who tweeted a “border wall construction update” on Friday: “Miles completed yesterday–Zero; Miles completed since Inauguration–Zero. NEXT UPDATE TOMORROW.” (For the record, border wall replacement is already taking place, and new construction is slated for next year.)
That’s because contrary to popular opinion, many on the right who voted for Trump, particularly in conservative media, didn’t vote for a personality. As Coulter put it in her column, “The Washington Post loves to find the one crazy, trailer park lady who supports Trump because she’s had religious ecstasies about him, but most people who voted for him did so with a boatload of qualms.”
Rather, they had specific reasons for voting for Trump.
- Getting out of foreign wars, for example, or
- ending Obamacare, or
- curbing abortion. Or, most importantly for many,
- curtailing immigration and
- building a border wall.
And they aren’t seeing much progress. And they’re not happy about it.
I reached out to Coulter, and asked her if her support for Trump was contingent on a wall, or whether toughened border security would be enough. She responded via email: “WALL — or whatever Israel has,” with a link to a Jerusalem Post article about Israel’s border security mechanisms, adding “definitely NOT a B.S., completely meaningless promise of “border security.”
Because his other populist promises are broken, he has to keep this one... His otherwise-unpopular presidency is floated on jobs and economic growth, and trade wars can be bad for both. So why not just drop the mercantilism and let the good times roll?.. The party’s senators generally have a better grasp of facts than the occupant of the White House, but the president often has a better grasp of politics. And the political truth is that Trump probably needs his tariffs, needs his trade war, to have any chance of re-election — precisely because it’s the only remaining economic issue where he’s stuck to his campaign promises and hasn’t just deferred to traditional Republican priorities... Those campaign promises, as everyone is well aware, were generally more populist than the official G.O.P. agenda: Trump promised
- middle-class tax cuts and a
- generous Obamacare alternative,
- he stiff-armed the entitlement reformers and
- talked up infrastructure spending, and he railed
- against free trade deals with every other breath.
And that populist branding was crucial to the electoral trade he made, which ceded a share of business-friendly suburbanites to the Democrats but reaped a crucial group of erstwhile Obama voters, mostly white and working class and concentrated in the Rust Belt and upper Midwest states, who ultimately handed Trump the presidency... That was the story of 2016; the story since, though, is one of reversion to the older political order. Because Trump has mostly governed as a conventional Republican, a certain kind of conventional Republican has come home to him, keeping his support stable in the states that the Romney-Ryan ticket won easily in 2012. But for the same reason — because the infrastructure plan never materialized and the tax cut was a great whopping favor to corporate interests and the health care repeal-and-replace effort was a misbegotten flop — the swing voters he needs to hold the Midwest are now drifting away... Certainly the Republicans criticizing him on trade aren’t offering him such a path: Their overall vision is the same tired G.O.P. orthodoxy that went down to defeat in 2008 and 2012, and that Trump himself crushed in the last primary campaign... the fact that Trump’s tariffs are generally unpopular, even in Midwestern states, doesn’t matter politically nearly as much as their potential appeal to the narrow slice of blue-collar swing voters that he needs if he’s going to be re-elected. And their potential cost, for now, can be swallowed up by general economic growth or dealt with via cynical payoffs.. One of the strongest arguments for the countermajoritarian element in the Electoral College is that it provides a point of leverage for regional populations that have suffered particularly at the hands of an overreaching bipartisan consensus.