Why you should care
Because Trump put some harsh actions behind decades of words on trade.
In a 1988 interview that we may one day look back on as a precursor to a presidential debate, Donald Trump spoke to Oprah Winfrey about Japan: “They come over here, they sell their cars, their VCRs. They knock the hell out of our companies.”
The technology has changed, but Trump’s trade protectionism has not. After more than a year of mostly feints and talks, Trump delivered the most consequential trade strike of his presidency at midnight Friday when he allowed 25 percent tariffs on steel and 10 percent tariffs on aluminum to go into effect on Mexico, Canada and the European Union.
Trump is malleable on a lot of things, but this is an issue that motivates him and his base, and he’s been talking about it for decades. It goes against what has become a bipartisan elite consensus — even the Heritage Foundation went after him on Thursday — as free traders like Gary Cohn are long gone from 1600 Pennsylvania, and Trump has run out of patience.
FAIR TRADE!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 31, 2018
He’s playing to the Rust Belt, but this move is politically problematic. First, the affected countries already are retaliating with tariffs on American steel, aluminum, farm products and, gulp, bourbon. Second, the stock market — which Trump views as a kind of approval rating — took a dive. Third, he could be hurting farm communities that form a good chunk of his base.
I spent the week in Missouri reporting on one of the biggest Senate races in the country, in a state where Trump won by 19 points. Missouri sold $900 million worth of hogs last year, so a Mexican tariff on pork bellies would bite.
Josh Hawley, the fresh-faced and dynamic Republican attorney general challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, is embracing Trump. The former Heritage intern says he supports the populist turn that conservatism has taken under the president’s leadership. Sitting in a barbecue restaurant in Springfield, a couple of days before this tariff announcement, I asked Hawley about free trade and its effect on agriculture. “The president is right to take on trade cheaters,” Hawley said. “He’s right to go after China. The end of that process needs to be a better deal for American ag, Missouri ag, but trade is a big part of the threat the middle class is facing.”
Talks with China have stretched for months — as has a renegotiation of NAFTA — and the White House said this week that it would impose targeted tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese “industrially significant technology” in mid-June, amid claims of intellectual property theft. The U.S. continues to press World Trade Organization cases against China. Meanwhile, Europe pledged to take the U.S. to the WTO for this steel and aluminum move — discounting the “national security” grounds for protecting a domestic industry hammered by low prices. “Trade wars are good, and easy to win,” the president tweeted in March. We’re about to find out if he’s right.