Trump wags the dog: His "trade war" may be a sign of desperation

Trump can't appoint himself president for life — at least not yet. Starting a pointless trade war will have to do

By Heather Digby Parton


Published March 5, 2018 8:00AM (EST)

 (Getty/Alex Wong)
(Getty/Alex Wong)

Upon learning that President Xi Jinping of China had unilaterally ended term limits in China, I wrote a piece for Salon in which I contemplated how jealous President Trump surely was that Xi had such power. He does admire a strongman. Lo and behold, at Trump's Mar-a-Lago fundraiser on Friday night he "joked" about that very subject, saying:

He's now president for life. President for life. No, he's great. And look, he was able to do that. I think it's great. Maybe we'll have to give that a shot some day.

The recording shows that that the audience of wealthy donors (from whom Trump will reportedly demand hundreds of millions of dollars for his 2020 campaign) found the joke to be hilarious. It's always wise to laugh at the king's jokes, even if they aren't funny.

Keep in mind that a poll taken last summer showed that a majority of Republicans said they would support postponing the 2020 election until we can "fix" all the supposed illegal-immigrant voting, if Trump proposed doing so. They aren't joking.

First there was the fundraiser on Friday where Trump "joked" about being dictator for life, whined that the system is rigged and mused that Hillary Clinton must be very unhappy. Then there was the Gridiron dinner the next night, at which Trump told some professionally written jokes in between insulting his enemies (he said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., should be given an IQ test). At both he was edgy and aggressive, obviously trying hard to behave as if the wheels haven't come off and are bouncing down the road almost out of sight. But they are.

He knows -- and everyone else knows too -- that the headlines for his presidency are as bad as they've ever been, and that's saying something. Here is just a smattering:

Mueller team asking if Kushner foreign business ties influenced Trump policy

The wild wars within the Trump White House

FBI counterintel investigating Ivanka Trump business deal

Many Trump Staffers Are Trying To Leave His Out-Of-Control White House

White House meltdown on full display

Trump adrift: Tumult in West Wing amid exits, investigation

Trump’s Chaos Theory for the Oval Office Is Taking Its Toll

Just as reporters are starting to hear from people who have been interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller that he's homing in on the Trump inner circle and is starting to look at whether the Trump White House is delivering favors for money and paying back Russia for its help during the campaign, Trump is no doubt getting reports from his staff saying similar things. Not being a person who ever shows grace under pressure, he's not handling it well.

According to the various reports linked above, some even naming as many as 22 White House staffers, Trump is raging and pouting and screaming into the void about how unfair it all is. He's demanding to know why we're all ignoring the real collusion scandal between the Democratic Party, the Clinton campaign and the Russians, which his obsequious factotum Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., keeps assuring him will deal a devastating blow to all his enemies, if only he can get a new special prosecutor to go around Attorney General Jeff "Mr. Magoo" Sessions.

Trump keeps blaming former President Obama for failing to keep the Russians from helping the Trump campaign win the election:

All of this has finally taken its toll. Evidently, Trump finally got so upset he decided to just go for it and do the one thing he's been wanting to do since the 1980s -- slap some tariffs on those lily-livered foreigners and show them who's boss. For months there had been reports that he was having tantrums, screaming "I want tariffs!" Axios reported this last August:

Trump, addressing [chief of staff John] Kelly, said, "John, you haven't been in a trade discussion before, so I want to share with you my views. For the last six months, this same group of geniuses comes in here all the time and I tell them, 'Tariffs. I want tariffs.' And what do they do? They bring me IP. I can't put a tariff on IP." (Most in the room understood that the president can, in fact, use tariffs to combat Chinese IP theft.)

"China is laughing at us," Trump added. "Laughing."

Kelly responded: "Yes sir, I understand, you want tariffs."

Someone pulled out a chart and Trump said, "I don't even know what I'm looking at here." Then he railed against the "globalists," clearly not having a clue what that means and demanded his tariffs once again.

In the midst of his meltdown last week, he finally pulled the trigger and imposed a 25 percent tariff on steel and aluminum imports. He's doing it exactly as he has promised since the '80s and as recently as the 2011 CPAC, where the crowd cheered wildly even though conservatives supposedly favor laissez-faire free trade.

During the presidential campaign, Trump would often lay into Japan as well, clearly unaware that it is no longer 1987, when he said exactly the same things, in exactly the same words, as he did 30 years later. Never let it be said that he learned even one thing in the interim.

I'll leave the question of whether the proposed tariffs will hurt the economy and jobs to the economists. But it's clear that his typical blunderbuss approach is hurting America's relationship with allies for no good reason.

In that tweet, the president openly describes his approach as a "trade war," apparently aware that this move could escalate into something much more disruptive, which is what he apparently wants.The European Union immediately objected, as did Canada and Britain, making the case that they are not breaking the rules and don't deserve to be caught up in Trump's anachronistic power play. If one didn't know better, one might assume that in the midst of all of his troubles -- with the family being implicated in corruption and the Russia investigation getting closer -- Trump has decided to start a trade war to wag the dog.

It's such a coincidence that driving a wedge between the United States and its allies in Europe and Canada just happens to be the fondest wish of the president of Russia; Russia has been set against the Western alliance for about 70 years. That alliance contained the Soviet Union until it fell and has forged a very successful economic partnership. It also tended to make the Russian government unhappy by pointing out that nation's human rights violations, something Trump would never do.

I doubt Trump is doing anything more than shaking his tiny fist at the world here, although the ramifications of his actions could be serious. But you can bet his promised "trade war" is being toasted with high-end vodka in offices in the Kremlin. This guy delivers to his real friends, even when he doesn't mean to.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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