Trump and the Art of the Flail

Protectionism is worse when it’s erratic and unpredictable.

The “very stable genius” in the Oval Office is, in fact, extremely unstable, in word and deed. That’s not a psychological diagnosis, although you can make that case too. It’s just a straightforward description of his behavior. And his instability is starting to have serious economic consequences.

To see what I mean about Trump’s behavior, just consider his moves on China trade over the past month, which have been so erratic that even those of us who follow this stuff professionally have been having a hard time keeping track.

First, Trump unexpectedly announced plans to greatly expand the range of Chinese goods subject to tariffs. Then he had his officials declare China a currency manipulator — which happens to be one of the few economic sins of which the Chinese are innocent. Then, perhaps fearing the political fallout from the higher prices of many consumer goods from China during the holiday season, which would result from the tariff hikes, he postponed — but didn’t cancel — them.

Wait, there’s more. China, predictably, responded to the new United States tariffs with new tariffs on U.S. imports. Trump, apparently enraged, declared that he would raise his tariffs even higher, and declared that he was ordering U.S. companies to wind down their business in China (which is not something he has the legal authority to do). But at the Group of 7 summit in Biarritz he suggested that he was having “second thoughts,” only to have the White House declare that he actually wished he had raised tariffs even more.

And we’re not quite done. On Monday Trump said that the Chinese had called to indicate a desire to resume trade talks. But there was no confirmation from the Chinese, and Trump has been a notably unreliable narrator of what’s going on in international meetings. For example, he made the highly improbable claim that “World Leaders” (his capitalization) were asking him, “Why does the American media hate your Country so much?”

To repeat, all of this has happened just this month. Now imagine yourself as a business leader trying to make decisions amid this Trumpian chaos.

The truth is that protectionism gets something of an excessively bad rap. Tariffs are taxes on consumers, and they tend to make the economy poorer and less efficient. But even high tariffs don’t necessarily hurt employment, as long they’re stable and predictable: the jobs lost in industries that either rely on imported inputs or depend on access to foreign markets can be offset by job gains in industries that compete with imports.

History is, in fact, full of examples of economies that combined high tariffs with more or less full employment: America in the 1920s, Britain in the 1950s and more.

But unstable, unpredictable trade policy is very different. If your business depends on a smoothly functioning global economy, Trump’s tantrums suggest that you should postpone your investment plans; after all, you may be about to lose access to your export markets, your supply chain or both. It’s also, though, not a good time to invest in import-competing businesses; for all you know, Trump will eventually back down on his threats. So everything gets put on hold — and the economy suffers.

One question you might ask is why Trumpian trade uncertainty is looming so much larger now than it did during the administration’s first two years. Part of the answer, I think, is that until fairly recently most analysts expected the U.S.-China trade conflict to be resolved with minimal disruption. You may recall that after denouncing Nafta as the worst trade deal ever made, Trump essentially surrendered and declared victory, settling for a new deal almost indistinguishable from the old one. Most economic newsletters I get predicted a similar outcome for the U.S. and China.

At the same time, the U.S. economy is slowing as the brief sugar high from the 2017 tax cut wears off. Another leader might engage in some self-reflection. Trump being Trump, he’s blaming others and lashing out. He has declared both Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, and Xi Jinping, China’s leader, enemies. As it turns out, however, there’s nothing much he can do to bully the Fed, but the quirks of U.S. trade law do allow him to slap new tariffs on China.

Of course, Trump’s trade belligerence is itself contributing to the economic slowdown. So there’s an obvious possibility for a vicious circle. The economy weakens; a flailing Trump lashes out at China, and possibly others (Europe may be next); this further weakens the economy; and so on.

At that point you might expect an intervention from the grown-ups in the room — but there aren’t any. In any other administration Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a.k.a. the Lego Batman guy, would be considered a ridiculous figure; these days, however, he’s as close as we get to a voice of economic rationality. But whenever he tries to talk sense, as he apparently did over the issue of Chinese currency manipulation, he gets overruled.

Protectionism is bad; erratic protectionism, imposed by an unstable leader with an insecure ego, is worse. But that’s what we’ll have as long as Trump remains in office.

Here’s a gun-control measure both sides can get behind — and it works

One policy idea, though, is being met with rare consensus by both advocates for gun control and gun rights: gun violence restraining orders (GVRO), in which law enforcement agencies, families and household members can quickly remove firearms from individuals deemed unstable or unfit to own them.

.. A court-issued GVRO compels an unfit gun owner to sell or surrender his firearms before he can do harm to himself or others while ensuring the gun owner’s right to due process.

.. A “permanent” GVRO expires after 12 months, time in which the gun owner can seek professional counseling or treatment to address underlying problems. Courts can authorize an extension of the GVRO if the gun owner remains unfit. Many Second Amendment advocates recognize that this approach strikes a good balance and that responsible gun owners should have nothing to fear.

Trump’s Petticoat Government

What’s different about Donald Trump is that his inability to handle the weight and responsibility of his office is not something that crept up gradually

.. Instead it’s been a defining feature of his administration from Day 1 — and indeed was obvious during the campaign that elected him.

.. the president’s unfitness is not really a Harvey Weinstein-style “open secret,” an awful reality known to insiders

.. anyone who reads the papers (this one especially) knows that some combination of Trump’s personality and temperament and advancing age leave him constantly undone by the obligations of the presidency.

.. the book may be dubious in some particulars but as the consummate insiders Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen wrote on Thursday, the parts about Trump’s capabilities and mental state “ring unambiguously true.”

.. the 25th Amendment option isn’t happening — not without some major presidential deterioration in the midst of a major crisis, and probably not even then.

.. So unless Robert Mueller has more goods than I expect, we are going to live for the next few years in the way that America lived during the waning days of Nixon, the end of the Wilson administration

.. the central question of these years is not a normal policy question, or even the abnormal sort that the Resistance and other fascism-fearers expect to face.

.. The idea of a right-populist agenda died with Bannon’s exit from the White House

.. the standard-issue G.O.P. agenda has little left after the tax cuts

.. Trump’s authoritarian impulses, while genuine, seem unlikely to produce even aggrandizement on the scale of past presidents from F.D.R. to Nixon, because he has no competence to execute on them.

.. Can the people who surround Donald Trump work around his incapacity successfully enough to keep his unfitness from producing a historic calamity?

.. the men and women of the West Wing, for all that the media was ridiculing them, actually felt they had a responsibility to the country,”

.. the work has been necessary and important, and the achievement of relative stability a genuine service to the United States.

.. Can it continue in the face of some greater crisis than Trump has yet confronted? Can it continue if the Democrats take a share of power or if the president’s own family faces legal jeopardy?

.. Is the American system more able to correct for presidential incapacity than some of us have feared?

Comments

The GOP has married its fortunes to a fake news industry that has been driving & chasing its audience’s anger deeper & deeper into extremism and fantasy for over 2 decades. A country that mistakes Fox or Breitbart for journalism, or Mr. McConnell or Mr Ryan for anything but thieves (or Obama for a socialist), is a country that can mistake Trump for an intelligent adult.

.. Republican Party interest resides in power, not in government.

What they adore is a lack of government, a lack of free and fair elections, a lack of consumer, environmental and worker protection, a lack of affordable healthcare, a lack of education, information, science and progress… a lack of income taxes to pay for any sort of decent civilization for the non-rich masses.

.. Trump The Useful Idiot is a perfectly fine fake President for Republican pirates and Reverse Robin Hoods to decimate America with fake justices, fake elections, fake healthcare and the fraudulent Prosperity Gospel that has reduced America to a shameful, unrepresentative oligarchic state.

.. The more the media rails about Trump’s mental status, the more the third of the electorate which supports him will feel the vicarious paranoia and outrage against the “elites” who, they feel with some justification, are trying to gaslight him out of office sooner rather than later.

.. As long as the stock market keeps booming and the rich keep growing richer, the #Resistance will continue playing out as a soap opera for our aghast entertainment.

.. The media had their chance to destroy Trump’s candidacy. Instead they nourished it with $5 billion worth of free advertising. His TV rallies and debates were ratings bonanzas. Media mogul Les Moonves even gloated that Trump “may not be good for America, but he’s damned good for CBS!”

Trump, Defending His Mental Fitness, Says He’s a ‘Very Stable Genius’

In a series of Twitter posts that were extraordinary even by the standards of his norm-shattering presidency, Mr. Trump insisted that his opponents and the news media were attacking his capacity because they had failed to prove his campaign conspired with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign

.. “Now that Russian collusion, after one year of intense study, has proven to be a total hoax on the American public, the Democrats and their lapdogs, the Fake News Mainstream Media, are taking out the old Ronald Reagan playbook and screaming mental stability and intelligence,” he wrote on Twitter even as a special counsel continues to investigate the Russia matter.

“Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart,” he added. He said he was a “VERY successful businessman” and television star who won the presidency on his first try. “I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius….and a very stable genius at that!”

.. After the president boasted that his “nuclear button” was bigger than Kim Jong-un’s in North Korea, Richard W. Painter, a former adviser to President George W. Bush, described the claim as proof that Mr. Trump is “psychologically unfit” and should have his powers transferred to Vice President Mike Pence under the Constitution’s 25th Amendment.

.. Mr. Trump’s self-absorption, impulsiveness, lack of empathy, obsessive focus on slights, tenuous grasp of facts and penchant for sometimes far-fetched conspiracy theories

.. Few questions irritate White House aides more than inquiries about the president’s mental well-being, and they argue that Mr. Trump’s opponents are trying to use those questions to achieve what they could not at the ballot box.

.. Thomas J. Barrack, a friend of Mr. Trump’s, was quoted in Michael Wolff’s new book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” as telling a friend that the president was “not only crazy but stupid.” In interviews, Mr. Barrack denied that and insisted that many people miss Mr. Trump’s actual brilliance.

.. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, has said Mr. Trump is “crazy but he’s a genius.”

.. Dr. Frances, author of “Twilight of American Sanity: A Psychiatrist Analyzes the Age of Trump,” said the president’s bad behavior should not be blamed on mental illness. “He is definitely unstable,” Dr. Frances said. “He is definitely impulsive. He is world-class narcissistic not just for our day but for the ages. You can’t say enough about how incompetent and unqualified he is to be leader of the free world. But that does not make him mentally ill.”

.. Lyndon B. Johnson were so troubled that they sought out three psychiatrists, who concluded that his behavior could indicate paranoid disintegration... Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, then a rival for the nomination, called him a “delusional narcissist.”

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, another Republican candidate, said: “I think he’s a kook. I think he’s crazy. I think he’s unfit for office.”

.. But fewer Republicans are willing to say that now that Mr. Trump is in office

.. For his part, Mr. Trump has accused his critics of being mentally impaired. He regularly describes adversaries with words like “crazy,” “psycho” and “nut job.”

.. He said his concern was as much about cognitive issues, citing the president’s occasional slurred speech and inability to form complete sentences.