Donald Trump, who claims that trade wars are “good, and easy to win” seems ready to test that theory by launching a war on 194 fronts. Tariffs that went into effect on Thursday night hit allies and opponents alike. Unfortunately, the return fire in Trump Trade War I threatens to leave craters across the whole nation. In the UK, the BBC reports that the head of the Labour Party has called for the government to “respond strongly … and make clear to him we are not susceptible to the intimidation, threats and bullying that he is putting in place.”
As reported on CNN Money, Canada has responded with taxes up to 25 percent on a broad range of US goods whose total value matches that of all Canadian exports of steel and aluminum. The Minister of Foreign Affairs called it “the strongest trade action Canada has taken in the post-war era.” With the “war” in that statement being World War II.
The president of the European Union has already announced retaliatory tariffs on $7.5 billion of US exports, and plans to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization.
“Let me be clear,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said. “[The US] tariffs are totally unacceptable.”
And those are America’s closest friends. All of this is happening as Donald Trump is attempting to negotiate a trade deal with China—an enormously complex undertaking made much more so by the efforts to arrange diplomatic talks with North Korea, Trump’s breaking of the nuclear treaty with Iran, and Trump’s overall erratic and inconsistent behavior. So now trade negotiations are being conducted even as tariffs are already flying in both directions.
The root of this conflict doesn’t appear to be any genuine issue in the U.S. economy. Most of the steel and aluminum imported into the U.S. comes from demand for alloys and forms not made in the U.S. And the tariffs are unlikely to result in any significant reshuffling of steel manufacturing, particularly given the inconsistent, start-stop-start way in which they’ve been implemented. Trump appears to be launching this trade war for the sole reason that he believes it will benefit him politically, even if it hurts his voters.
But, writing in Maclean’s, former diplomat Scott Gilmore has a proposal: Make the costs of Trump’s war personal, because the benefits already are.
The sanctions that have been suggested so far target many different segments of the American economy. Farmers would be especially hard hit, but Trump has already made them martyrs to his trade war. He has praised them for their “great patriotism” and promised that he will “make it up to them” in some unspecified way, at some unspecified time. His non-concern for them is limitless. After all, what are they going to do, vote for a Democrat?
Most of the weight of Trump’s trade war will be born by consumers, who will pay the tab in slightly higher prices on everything—a burden that falls disproportionately on the poor. Again, not an issue for Trump.
The conservative Heritage Foundation has estimated that just the tariffs discussed so far would cost the US 140,000 jobs. But that’s across a broad range of industries. As long as one new job gets created at a steel plant anywhere in America, Trump will declare a “win.”
But Gilmore’s idea is a simple one. If foreign governments want to be heard, there’s no point in raising the cost of socks for the average American, clamping down on the demand for U.S. paper products, or driving farmers into bankruptcy. Trump doesn’t care.
What Gilmore suggests is that other nations look to the lucrative path already taken by Russia, China, Ukraine, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and most recently, Qatar.
When they want something from the United States, they skip the State Department, and even the White House staff. Instead of approaching their problem state-to-state, they go state-to-man. These countries focus on what Trump wants on a personal level – to enrich his family. So Beijing granted Ivanka trademarks, Qatar invested in one of Jared’s office towers, and Ukraine, with Slavic candor, simply wired half a million dollars to the President’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen.
Trump has said many times that he prefers one-on-one negotiations. Now that he has 194 of those to conduct, every one represents an opportunity to improve the bottom line of the only “one” who counts. Trump is right. Trade wars are good … for Trump. He can use the leverage of the entire nation, to drive money into his own coffers.
But this can also go the other way.
Instead of bribing him with personal carrots, I would suggest we consider applying personal sticks. Instead of asking ourselves how we can help the President or his family, we should ask: How can we hurt him? And, Trump has already given us an answer.
Nice golf course you’ve got there, Donald. Be a shame if the taxes were to go up by … say, ten thousand percent? And have we mentioned the new tariff on large gold letters?