Second, Trump’s “tariff men” are living in the past, out of touch with the realities of the modern economy. They talk nostalgically about the policies of William McKinley. But back then the question, “Where was this thing made?” generally had a simple answer. These days, almost every manufactured good is the product of a global value chain that crosses multiple national borders.
This raises the stakes: U.S. business was hysterical at the prospect of disrupting Nafta, because so much of its production relies on Mexican inputs. It also scrambles the effects of tariffs: when you tax goods assembled in China but with many of the components from Korea or Japan, assembly doesn’t shift to America, it just moves to other Asian countries like Vietnam.
Finally, Trump’s trade war is unpopular — in fact, it polls remarkably poorly — and so is he.
This leaves him politically vulnerable to foreign retaliation. China may not buy as much from America as it sells, but its agricultural market is crucial to farm-state voters Trump desperately needs to hold on to. So Trump’s vision of an easy trade victory is turning into a political war of attrition that he, personally, is probably less able to sustain than China’s leadership, even though China’s economy is feeling the pain.
So how will this end? Trade wars almost never have clear victors, but they often leave long-lasting scars on the world economy. The light-truck tariffs America imposed in 1964 in an unsuccessful effort to force Europe to buy our frozen chickens are still in place, 55 years later.
Trump’s trade wars are vastly bigger than the trade wars of the past, but they’ll probably have the same result. No doubt Trump will try to spin some trivial foreign concessions as a great victory, but the actual result will just be to make everyone poorer. At the same time, Trump’s casual trashing of past trade agreements has badly damaged American credibility, and weakened the international rule of law.
Oh, and did I mention that McKinley’s tariffs were deeply unpopular, even at the time? In fact, in his final speech on the subject, McKinley offered what sounds like a direct response to — and rejection of — Trumpism, declaring that “commercial wars are unprofitable,” and calling for “good will and friendly trade relations.”
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