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The Pros and Cohns of Protectionism

Even on a Tuesday day when a pornographic video performer called Stormy Daniels filed a lawsuit against President Donald Trump, the departure of National Economic Council director Gary Cohn was the biggest news out of the White House. The frequent comings and goings of Trump administration officials are usually newsworthy only because of the colorful characters involved and the chaotic situation they represent, but in Cohn’s case it could have serious consequences.
Cohn was one of economic advisers who tried to talk Trump out of imposing the steep steel and aluminum tariffs that were announced last week, as well as the rest of the protectionist agenda Trump has proposed, and his resignation suggests that talking Trump out of such cockamamie ideas is beyond his ability. The congressional Republican leadership also tried persuade Trump to reconsider, and although Trump is invoking national security reasons for imposing the tariffs so did his Defense Secretary and Secretary of State, as well as some of most stalwart defenders in the conservative media, so it appears that no one’s up to the task.
Cohn’s continued role in the White House gave faint hope to the free-traders, though, and his exit suggests the fight is over. His resignation wasn’t announced until the stock markets had closed for the day, but we expect the news will be met glumly when they open again today. Except for the aluminum and steel makers and a few other unionized industries hoping for similar protection from foreign competition, pretty much everyone is planning to pay more for aluminum and steel and try to pass the hit along the supply chain and down to the end consumer, steeling themselves for the inevitable retaliatory tariffs on American exports by friends and foes alike, and worrying what comes after that.
Cohn and the other sensible administration officials and the congressional Republican leadership and the conservative media defenders should have seen it coming all along, though, as well as all those steel-and-aluminum buying companies and export industries and other critics. Trump made quite clear during his seemingly quixotic campaign that he intended on waging a global trade war, and although he spouted off a lot of crazy talk that no one took seriously he was quite clearly sincere in about this particular threat. He’d been publicly critical of America’s trade with the rest of the world since President Ronald Reagan’s administration, claimed that America had been taken advantage of in every foreign relation since the Marshall Plan of President Harry Truman, and offered himself as the artful dealmaker who alone could set things right. Over the years Trump has been all over the place on abortion and immigration and “transgender rights” and almost anything else in the news — we like to joke that he’s taken more positions than Stormy Daniels — but he has never once wavered from a core conviction that he alone could renegotiate the entire world economy to America’s rightful advantage.
Although an estimable fellow, Cohn was never going to talk Trump out of this delusion. Cohn was always a controversial pick, with critics to both the left and right, and ill-suited to any role in Trump’s reality show. His only previous employer was at the too-big-to-fail Goldman-Sachs investment bank, where he rose through the ranks to a top spot, and the conspiracy theorizing sorts of liberals and conservatives have long noticed that Goldman Sachs has landed a noticeable number of former executives in both Democratic and Republican administrations for an noticeably long time, so that left him vulnerable. The stock markets and other centrist types were slightly reassured that at least Trump honored some of the time-honored presidential traditions, and held out hope Con would restrain Trump’s populist impulses, but a buttoned-down riser-through-the-corporate ranks has never prevailed in any reality show ever aired.
Cohn lasted on the reality show island longer than most of us expected, given all the anti-globalist conspiracy theorists who got a vote in each week’s cliff-hanging exile. He outlasted the defiantly nationalist chief strategist Steve Bannon, oh-so loyal and kinda cute communications director Hope Hicks, onetime establishment whipping boy and later chief of staff Reince Priebus, currently under-indictment former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, that Omarosa woman who held some job or another before returning to a lesser-rated reality, along with countless others can’t quite recall. We think he did some good along the way, too.
As an observant Jew with universal human values, Cohn reportedly considered resigning after Trump insisted there were some “very fine people” marching alongside the neo-Nazis at a deadly rally in Virginia, and although he stayed on he helped fuel the public’s indignation. By sticking around he helped he shape and shepherd trough the Congress a tax bill that so far seems one the best things the Trump administration has done, and he’s also played a role in all the deregulation that has so far worked out well enough. He couldn’t talk Trump out of his crazy trade war, but at least his resignation might spook the stock markets and fuel the public’s indignation and give those congressional Republican leaders and other critics some chance of restraining the president’s populist impulses.
We’ll hope for the best for Cohn and all the rest of us, including that unfortunate visiting Swedish Prime Minister who wound up standing next to Trump during a joint news conference where both the American and Swedish press were asking all sorts of pointed questions about potential trade wars and the ongoing “Russia thing.” The video would have fed all the snarky late comics’ monologues if not for the lawsuit by the porn star, but even those easy and smutty jokes were among the first casualties of the trade war.

— Bud Norman

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The Endless Campaign

President Donald Trump held another of his large and raucous campaign rallies in Florida on Saturday, which seems odd given that the last presidential election occurred nearly four months ago and the next one won’t take place for another three years and eight month or so. At this point in a presidency most presidents are busy filling the last of their administration posts, sending out the smart people they’ve already brought on to make a reasoned case to both the congress and broader public for the policies being proposed, digging into all the rest of the dreary work of a thankless office, and breathing a sigh of relief that the past campaign is four months over and the next won’t begin until a few days after the mid-term elections that are still nearly two months away.
Pretty much everything about the presidency of President Donald Trump seems odd, though, as his most strident critics will bitterly complain and his most ardent supports will proudly boast. Trump is behind schedule in filling such administration posts as Deputy Secretary to several of the more consequential Secretaries he’s been having trouble getting approved, largely because so many of the potential pool of conservative and Republican establishment figures had critical things to say about him during the campaign, but his most strident critics never liked any of those guys and his most ardent supporters are even more disdainful of the Republican establishment. So far the only detailed policy that has been trotted out is a temporary ban on travel into the United States from a limited number of Muslim-majority countries, which made some sense and had some obvious flaws and has since been so endlessly revised and re-intepreted and beset by such legal challenges both reasonable and absurd that both the smart people sent out to explain and the strident critics opposing it wound up looking ridiculous. So far, both sides seem delighted about everything.
Digging into the dreary work of a thankless office doesn’t seem Trump’s style, based on what we’ve observed of the man over his long career as a celebrity real estate and casino and strip club and minor league football and pro-wrestling and scam university mogul and constant tabloid sex scandal subject and better-ratings-than-Arnold-Schwarzenegger-and-should-have-won-an-Emmy reality television star, and he also doesn’t seem the type to breath a sigh of relief at being momentarily out of the spotlight of a campaign. “Life is a campaign,” Trump told a bevy of reporters aboard Air Force One on the way to the rally. “Making America great again is a campaign. For me, it’s a campaign.” By now it should be clear that the campaign will last for the rest of all our natural lives, and will forever need fresh foes to vanquish more than it needs objective improvements in American life.
Even before the big Florida rally Trump had returned to bashing the throughly vanquished Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in a widely watched news conference, and reviving unproved claims that she didn’t really win the popular vote by an embarrassing three million or so votes due to massive voter fraud, and making a provably false claim that his electoral victory was the biggest since Reagan’s and then embarrassingly attributing it to “the information I heard,” and it seems clear he’ll still be running against Clinton for the next three years and eight months or so. We take a back seat to no one in our disdain for Clinton, and were criticizing her way back when Trump was contributing to her campaigns and inviting her to his third wedding and praising her to the hilt in his non-stop interviews, but by now we’re happy to let the subject drop.
Clinton not only lost her second and final attempt at the presidency but lost it to Trump, which is surely an innermost circle of hell that the combined imaginations of Dante Alighieri and Hieronymus Bosch and ourselves could not have conceived for her, and she will likely spend the rest of her addled days wandering the woods of upstate New York with no contributions flowing into her defunct charity and her speaking fees and book royalties at a bargain-basement price, and at at this point even Trump isn’t leading the rallies in chants of “lock her up.” At any rate she no longer seems an impediment to making America great again, so we’re eager to hear more about how Trump intends to achieve that with her well out of the way.
Apparently, though, there are other foes to be vanquished before the gain get around to explaining how he’s going to make everything better. There’s that pesky free press, of course, with all its fake news about how the administration isn’t humming like a finely-tuned machine and Trump isn’t already making America great again. During the rally he quoted Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln criticizing the press, which goes to show how long those nasty newspapers have been trying to undermine a free republic, and his most ardent supporters agreed not read anything negative they read about Trump, which caused his most strident critics to pull their hair and gnash their teeth, which gave great glee to all of Trump’s most ardent supporters, but such old conservative and Republicans hands as ourselves wondered how that was making America great again.
There is the very real and ever-present threat of Islamist terrorism, and Trump rightly mentioned that, but during that portion of the rally he also alluded to “what happened last night in Sweden.” So far as anyone can tell the biggest story in Sweden the night before was a microphone failure on a popular amateur singing contest called “Melfest,” which all those snooty reporters from the hated press and all the rest of Trump’s most strident critics had great fun reporting, and which all of Trump’s most ardent supporters were explaining to a general crime problem among Sweden’s Muslim immigrant population which had been reported on the night before on the Fox News network. Trump’s most ardent supporters love him because he means what he says, even though they often have to explain that what he said wasn’t really what he meant to say, but for all our longstanding concern about Islamist terrorism we’re not inclined to make such excuses for such sloppy language. Oh, and there are gangsters galore out there terrorizing America’s streets, but so far as we can tell the recent uptick in crime — which objectively are still nowhere near the 45-year highs Trump constantly claims, even when addressing law enforcement officers who damn well know better — is driven mostly by Chicago and a couple of other big Democratic controlled cities, and Trump wasn’t altogether clear about he was going to do about that.
Trump has described certain of his critics as “the enemy of the American people,” which also seems odd, given the terms association with the Roman Senate’s accusation against the Emperor Nero and the Henrik Ibsen play that Hitler somehow misread and the Bolsheviks’ slaughter of the kulaks, but we don’t suppose that Trump or any of his most ardent supporters are aware of any of that. In any case we hope we won’t be so accused, not because we’re afraid the thin-and-orange-skinned demagogue bothers himself with such small fry as ourselves, but because we’re all in favor of the people and wouldn’t want anyone to think otherwise. We’d love to see a sensible skepticism about travel from Muslim-majority countries, and a more honest and accountable press, and a finely-tuned administration repealing bothersome regulations and freeing the private sector from bossy interventions, and safe streets even in Chicago, and all the things that have so long been yearned for the boring old Republican establishment that Trump has vowed to vanquish.
So far it seems an odd beginning, though, and something in our boring old Republican establishment souls would much prefer a president digging into the dreary work of a thankless office and sharing our sigh of relief that the campaign is at least momentarily over.

— Bud Norman