Donald Trump will live on in history books, but not for the reasons he hopes. He will be of interest to historians and political scientists chiefly because he’s been so willing to make decisions that polling has long showed most Americans don’t support, like separating migrant children from their parents and storing them in cages, or risking a highly-visible trade war that will make clothes, cars, and electronics more expensive.
Stock markets are tanking Wednesday amid threats from President Trump to escalate the trade war if China retaliates against new 25% tariffs on $50 billion worth of goods imported annually to the U.S., which are being implemented this month. The actual effect of tariffs that have been implemented thus far have been confined to a few products and business. Washing machines, for example, are 17% more expensive today than they were last year. But there probably aren’t going to be anywhere near enough voters who have bought a washing machine in recent months—and know that the Trump tariffs made it $100 more expensive—to have any appreciable political effect.
The economic impact of these measures will grow as the more tariffs are implemented, and if the president follows through with threats for even more tariffs. But the political impact will depend on how intensely opponents of trade barriers dislike the policy, and how effectively they convince others to feel the same way.The political logic of the children-in-cages things appears to be that the White House is willing to ignore the fact that the median American is turned off by his “zero-tolerance” policy because of how much the Trump base loves it. And they’re betting that Republicans will benefit more from an enthusiastic base in November than they will from avoiding offending those outside the base.
The trade war is being persecuted under the same logic as Trump’s muslim ban and the zero-tolerance policy that is now getting so much attention. Foreigners are taking advantage of us, and Donald Trump is the only one with the political courage to stand up against them. But whether or not the trade angle of this story actually animates the Republican base in the same way that tough immigration policies do remains to be seen.
While the pro-business wing of the Republican Party has proven willing to take a Trumpian line on issues like the wall and illegal immigration, the old guard of the GOP is more willing to stand up to Trump against new tariffs. The fight against taxation is the only issue that seems to unite the GOP anymore, and while there has yet to be a full-scale Republican revolt against Trump trade policy, they are giving the president a shorter leash on this issue than any other. This suggests there is voter support and donor money waiting in the wings to finance such a revolt, if necessary.
Donald Trump will not heed these considerations, however. While there was a chance that Trump would have taken a knee on the trade war a few months ago, saving his political capital for other fights where he could count on broader public support, the president is too emotionally invested in his game of chicken with the rest of the world to back down now.
Unfortunately for Americans, Donald Trump’s negotiating adversaries in China, Mexico, and all over the world know this. They’ve read the Art of the Deal. They’ve studied Trump’s failed attempt to redevelop Manhattan’s West Side Yards into Television City, a failure which sunk his chances to actually become the most important developer in the city, after he showed a total inability to build political coalitions to get complicated policies enacted. And they’ve studied the way in which he lets personal animus cloud his business judgement, as it did when he sunk four years and millions of dollars into a losing lawsuit against Hong Kong billionaire Vincent Lo over the sale of the Riverside South development.
If you’re betting on Xi Jinping, Justin Trudeau or any other foreign leader to give in to Trump’s demands before giving him a chance to shoot himself in the foot, as he has dones countless times in his business career, you are crazy. In the meantime, the rest of us will get to enjoy watching the political and economic ramifications unfold in a natural experiment that only a President Trump could catalyse. Unless, of course, you’re in need of a new washing machine, and then you’ll just get to enjoy doing your part to reduce the federal budget deficit.
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.