What has the Trump administration actually accomplished in terms of policy? It’s an important question, because by the time we decide whether The Man Who Lost The Popular Vote will get another term, the American people will be able to judge his record over the previous four years. Unfortunately, for too many of his voters, the record is beside the point—they’ll vote for him just as they would for any Republican.
For the rest, what record will he actually run on? His Millionaire’s Tax Cut is widely unpopular, and has been for some time. The most recent poll, released on July 1 by AP-NORC, found that only 17% of respondents thought they got a tax cut thanks to the Trump scheme, with the number barely rising to 25% among Republican respondents. On the other hand, 33% thought their taxes had gone up after Trump’s plan passed. Ouch.
The American people know Trump and his Republican friends aren’t helping those outside the tippity-top sliver. More broadly, even though almost two-thirds said that the overall condition of the economy was “good,” majorities disapproved of his economic policies in general (51%), and specifically those on taxes (55%) and trade (59%). Americans apparently remember that it was Obama and the Democrats who brought us back from the brink in 2009-10. Compared to AP-NORC’s previous poll a few months earlier, the percentage saying that Trump’s tariffs will turn out to be a plus has plummeted, both overall and among Republicans.
In order for Trump to win in 2020, he needs to convince enough people that he’s fighting for them. Tax cuts for the rich don’t hold much appeal for those who know they won’t benefit, and I don’t see that perception changing after people file taxes again next April. However, no matter where things actually stand a year from now, Trump is going to claim that his policies on trade and—here’s where the real ugliness comes in—immigration are how he’s fighting for those Americans (mostly white) whom trade has harmed and those (even more white) who are afraid and angry about demographic change and an America in which people of color are claiming their rightful share of power. This week has seen Trump get red in the face over both issues, and on multiple fronts.
On his “trade war,” Trump is not most decidedly not winning, even though he had predicted on the eve of his grand campaign of tariffs here, there, and everywhere that victory would be “easy” to achieve. Paul Krugman this month offered his own prediction, namely that the one issued by Trump “will surely go down in the history books as a classic utterance — but not in a good way. Instead, it will go alongside Dick Cheney’s prediction, on the eve of the Iraq war, that ‘we will, in fact, be welcomed as liberators.’ That is, it will be used to illustrate the arrogance and ignorance that so often drives crucial policy decisions.” Krugman cited data from the New York Fed showing that Trump’s tariffs will take a $1,000-per-year bite out of the average U.S. household budget.
The largest of the fronts in Trump’s trade war (and it’s hard to keep track of how many fronts there are, another indication of its foolishness) is China. Beijing’s response to U.S. trade policy under President Individual 1 is as follows: “After 5,000 years of trials and tribulations, what kind of battle have the Chinese not been through?” It’s a fair point. Let me add that China does engage in unfair trade practices in intellectual property theft and other issues, and it is important for the U.S. to use leverage as well persuasion to get it to change.
Even when it looks like there’s progress on trade, there isn’t, as we saw this past week. Trump thought his most recent “truce” with China included an agreement that it would increase its imports of U.S. agricultural products. “We’re holding on tariffs, and they’re going to buy farm product,” announced Tariff Man two weeks ago. Er, not so much, as of the end of this week. Now Trump is saying that China “is letting us down” by not purchasing the goods “that they said they would.” He added: “Hopefully they will start soon!” Really? Hopefully? This is the man in charge of our economic policy, folks.
Tariffs aside, Trump has also demonstrated some real weakness toward China on a number of specific matters, drawing criticism even from a fellow Republican (although I’ll believe Republicans will actually take action to oppose him when I see it):
The controversy around the U.S.’s Huawei policy mirrors last year’s fight involving Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE Corp., on which the Trump administration imposed a sales ban after it violated the terms of a settlement agreement for its evasion of U.S. sanctions. Mr. Trump eventually reversed the ban, despite opposition from a large, bipartisan group in Congress, after discussions with President Xi.
Following Mr. Trump’s G-20 comments, Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), vowed not to let the same thing happen with Huawei. “If President Trump has in fact bargained away the recent restrictions on #Huawei, then we will have to get those restrictions put back in place through legislation,” he tweeted. “And it will pass with a large veto proof majority.”
Despite all this, Trump’s people apparently think the trade issue will play well for them in 2020, according to a report by Reuters. They are “confident he can portray his stance against Beijing as a strength in the 2020 election.” I’ll note that the Reuters reporter sounded a bit skeptical, noting that the White House’s optimism comes “despite” the fact that they’ve been “making concessions and hav[e] no deal in sight.” Ex-Trump advisor and generally reprehensible race-baiter Steve Bannon agreed with his former teammates on Team Trump: “I think it will help him politically because it’s the reality of the world that we live in.” A Trump spokesperson laid out their pitch: “President Trump is the first U.S. president to stand up to China for their bad actions on trade over many decades, a position of strength that will resonate with voters concerned about American jobs.”
The question for Democrats is how to respond. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both sought to enact new free trade agreements that would not only increase trade but also improve labor and environmental standards, with Clinton having more success than Obama. Obama’s TPP was opposed in 2016 by not only Trump but also Bernie Sanders and, eventually, Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s current cornucopia of tariffs, of course, is different from just opposing a particular trade agreement. Nevertheless, one of the most interesting questions about trade is how successfully Joe Biden—who typically hugs the Obama presidency as tightly as he can on the campaign trail—will negotiate his attacks on Trump, who will certainly respond by criticizing the Obama-Biden record on trade and China.
We saw a preview of Biden’s approach this week: “President Trump may think he’s being tough on China. All that he’s delivered as a consequence of that is American farmers, manufacturers and consumers losing and paying more.” Biden also hit Trump specifically over the unilateralism of his approach on trade, arguing that we should be coordinating our efforts with our allies: “China can’t afford to ignore half the global economy if we’re united. That gives us substantial leverage to shape the future rules of the road on everything from the environment to labor to trade to technology to transparency.”
This seems a promising approach to me. Democrats can’t say that Trump is wrong to try and use tough tactics to get China to change, as such an approach would play into his hands and allow him to portray our side as “weak” on trade (he’ll try anyway, but the goal is to neuter the effectiveness of such an attack). Biden’s point is that, although we still must, in his words, “get tough on China,” Trump is doing it the wrong way, i.e., going it alone, because, as an infantile egomaniac, he’s incapable of cooperating with anyone else. Such an argument complements and amplifies one broader criticism of Trump that Democrats need to make on his relations with the rest of the world, economic or otherwise: namely, that he can’t figure out how to get along with our allies—and thus he is harming American interests.
According to CNBC, thus far in the presidential campaign, “few Democratic candidates have targeted Trump over his trade policy.” Such a statement is open to some interpretation, but nevertheless, the issue has not been a major focus of the primary race thus far. There’s plenty of time for the other candidates to figure out their approach, but whoever the nominee is had better do so.
On immigration, well, Trump has been banging that drum since the day he announced his campaign for the White House. I’ve written more than once about his use of that issue to stir up hate, fear, and anxiety specifically toward those coming across our border with Mexico, and about ethnic and cultural changes resulting from immigration more broadly.
To recap, Trump’s immigration policies have led to horrific conditions in camps where many adults and children who came across that border are being held seemingly indefinitely in U.S. custody. He has claimed the reports of those conditions are a “hoax”—even though his own administration’s watchdogs have confirmed that they are all too real.
Going further, this week the Trump White House announced that it would shortly begin raids aimed at rounding up not dangerous criminals, but families living among us that include undocumented immigrants. As our own Laura Clawson rightly put it, the real aim is to “terrorize immigrant communities and excite his racist base.”
Trump’s immigration policies are not, to paraphrase Kamala Harris, putting food on anyone’s table. They aren’t even making Americans any safer, as the data shows that undocumented immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than the native-born. Americans appear to be slightly safer if they live among more undocumented immigrants versus living among fewer, all else being equal.
But in order to get voters who aren’t benefiting from the one large legislative accomplishment of the Trump Republican Party, namely the Millionaire’s Tax Cut, to support him, he has to serve up something else to get them excited—in the worst sense of that word. In 2020 Trump will excite them, scare them, enrage them, by railing about “illegals” and lying about the terrible impact they are supposedly having on our country. And then he’ll say something like, “I’m doing everything I can to keep them out and [insert Democratic nominee] wants to let them in. They care more about the illegals than about American citizens. Who are you gonna vote for?”
Trump used rhetoric like this on Thursday when announcing his cave on the census and the citizenship question:
As shocking as it may be, far-left Democrats in our country are determined to conceal the number of illegal aliens in our midst. They probably know the number is far greater, much higher than anyone would have ever believed before. Maybe that’s why they fight so hard. This is part of a broader left-wing effort to erode the rights of the American citizen and is very unfair to our country.
Is this a despicable tactic that plays on hate? Absolutely. Is it effective in reaching voters who might agree with the Democrat on other issues, and whose votes could make the difference in winning an Electoral College majority by swinging, for example, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania (to pick three states totally at random)? Absolutely.
It is vital that we progressives talk about treating undocumented people fairly and humanely. We also must affirmatively connect that message with one that directly confronts Trump on what he is doing and why he is doing it. In 2018, Democrats did that brilliantly, countering Trump’s closing message of “fear immigrants” (remember the “caravan”?) and making sure that it led to massive losses for his party nationwide. But he’ll have a similar message in 2020.
Democrats must continue to have a strong, comprehensive answer on immigration (unsurprisingly, Elizabeth Warren “has a plan for that,” and it’s an impressively comprehensive one). As tempting as it might be to focus just on the cruelty and inhumanity of Trump’s policies, our message must do more than that. Remember that Trump will say that he’s fighting to protect America and its citizens from the undocumented—a parallel to the argument he’ll make about fighting for American workers and businesses on trade. Yes, we must condemn his policies as cruel and inhumane. But we must also make clear that they are really just smoke and mirrors, a distraction from the fact that Trump is picking the pockets of the middle- and working-class to further enrich people like himself and his party buddy Jeffrey Epstein. We have to make clear that Trump and his Republican allies are not only spreading hate; they are also playing voters for fools.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump