We are so used to watching the Donald Trump administration and thinking “This is not normal,” that it has become worthwhile to point out when something he does is normal.
If you squint, the Trump trade war is actually just a run-of-the-mill policy dispute. In the decades following World War II, it was common for factions within both parties to agitate for higher tariffs. When the war ended in 1945, a full 37% of employed Americans worked in the manufacturing industry, and under such circumstances it would be illogical to expect politicians not to agitate for measures that made those jobs secure.
As the share of Americans employed in these export industries fell, so did the political rationale for taxing the cheap goods that emerging economies like Japan were producing en masse. Meanwhile, the growing role of multinational corporate money in politics and the declining role of unions in public life further reduced the pressure on Washington to maintain protectionist policies. Throw in cold war dynamics, which encouraged policy makers to open up the American market to allies in the fight against communism, and you’re left with only a small faction in the Democratic Party fighting against freer trade.
But by 2016, the evidence was overwhelming that the free trade movement had gone too far, too fast. The precipitous decline in manufacturing jobs throughout the 2000s and 2010s appears to be partly the result of China’s accession into the WTO, but America failed to bring China into the American economic order with anywhere near the same success it did Japan. Meanwhile the economic struggles of low-and-middle-skilled Americans became hard to ignore. Whether or not protectionism is the solution to these problems, by 2016, it had become popular enough again with the electorate that the nominees of both major parties had turned against more free trade deals.
And if you can remember back to the beginning months of the Trump presidency, it was Trump’s adoption of this policy stance, perfectly within the tradition of both political parties, that struck fear into the hearts of both Democrats and Republicans. The left feared that it could lead to a co-opting of working class voters while splitting the Democratic Party between its own economic nationalist wing and the cosmopolitan wing, more concerned with issues like women’s rights and racial justice. The Republican Party and its backers feared that Trump would expose and take advantage of the fact that the GOP’s economic policies are out of line with what its base and the country actually want.
But those fears were unfounded for the simple reasons of the president’s racism and corruption. It’s obvious today that the president’s immigration policies are not the result of a tactical assessment that he can gain political advantage by catering to the underserved constituency of immigration restrictionists. Trump’s comments after Charlottesville, his references to "Shithole countries," and countless other comments and actions show that his politics on this issue are the result of a genuine dislike of black and brown people. Such obvious racism makes it impossible for Democrats to make common cause with him, given their reliance on the votes of minority Americans.
And it’s Trump’s corruption that makes it impossible for him to stray too far from his Republican protectors in office. The implicit deal that’s been made between Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell is that Trump will sell tax cuts for the rich to his middle-class base, and Congress will look the other way with respect to the rampant corruption of the Trump Administration. It’s just icing on the cake that GOP tax policy will make the president and his family much richer than they already are.
Obvious losers in this charade are those Americans who genuinely believe there’s a place for taxes on imported goods as a tool for raising revenue and protecting industries vital to American interests or the health of the middle class. The president is fighting a multi-front trade war with no allies abroad and few at home. He simply doesn’t have any plan for winning, and his ultimate failure to rework the international trade system will tarnish the role of tariffs for a generation to come.
Christopher Matthews is a writer who splits his time between New York City and Accra, Ghana, with an interest in the intersection of markets, the economy, and public policy. He previously held staff positions at Axios, Fortune Magazine, and Time Magazine, and has been published in Forbes and Debtwire.