Doubling Down on a Dumb Trade War

Way back when we were proud to be Republicans, it was largely because of the Grand Old Party’s principled stand for red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism. When Republican nominee Mitt Romney accused President Barack Obama during a campaign debate of picking the economic winners and losers, and mostly picking the losers, we stood up and cheered. Now the Republicans are obliged to defend President Donald Trump’s protectionist trade war against the rest of the world, and to ignore the fact that he’s picking the economic winners and losers and mostly picking the losers.
On Monday Trump escalated the trade war with China by threatening $200 billion of tariffs on that country’s exports to the United States, his earlier threat of a mere $50 billion of tariffs having failed to force China’s capitulation to his trade demands, and of course China immediately responded with threats of retaliatory tariffs. Of course the stock markets hated the news, and so did everyone else with a basic understanding of the global economy. It’s bad economic policy, has warped America’s foreign policy to the point that North Korea’s nutcase dictator Kim Jong-Un is a an honorable leader much beloved by his starving people and Canada’s democratically elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is a weak and dishonest leader who awaits a special place in hell and all of our longtime allies are suspect, and in the long run it will prove bad politics.
Trump’s tariffs on steel and coal imports will surely be popular with people employed in those industries, but it will just as surely be unpopular with people who work in steel- and coal-buying industries, and anyone who buys anything made of steel or powered by coal, and the latter categories are by far a bigger voting bloc. There are also a lot of wheat farmers and airplane-makers who do a brisk trade with China and will surely be chagrined if China decides to buy from Argentina or Airbus, and a large chunk of Trump’s die-hard defenders will eventually notice that their shopping trips to Wal-Mart are suddenly far more expensive. The worst case scenario for a global trade war is the same as the last time a cocky and unprincipled Republican president tried it, which resulted in the Great Depression and eventually World War II, and even Trump will be hard-pressed to spin that outcome to even his most die-hard defenders.
The best-case scenario is harder to imagine. Red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism has always resulted in the creative destruction of longstanding industries, such as buggy-making and Blockbuster video stores, but it has reliably replaced them with something the public has always found better. China isn’t the reason that coal-mining now employs a mere 50,000 workers in America, which is mainly because of mechanization and nuclear plants and fracking of natural gas and all those windmills along I-35 and other more healthy ways to generate the nation’s energy. We sympathize with those last remaining coal miners, but red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism might well replace their jobs with something that doesn’t cause black-lung disease and an early death, and in any case they’re a small voting bloc.
Trump seems to believe the best-case scenario is back to the good old days when America mined coal and made all the world’s steel, and that his die hard defenders will prefer that to this high-tech age and what might come next. What might come next might well be far better, though, and we’ll bet on that rather Trump’s global trade war.

— Bud Norman

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