Donald Trump was right: Trade wars are "easy to win"! For the Chinese, anyway

In the chronicles of Trumpian bluster and gaslighting, his thoroughly pointless trade war holds a special place

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published May 22, 2018 5:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump; Xi Jinping (Getty/Photo montage by Salon)
Donald Trump; Xi Jinping (Getty/Photo montage by Salon)

So many people have heaped so much derision on President Trump after the abrupt abandonment of his “trade war” with China that it almost makes one suspect he’s doing something right. I said “almost.”

One of many ways the Trump administration has broken new ground in American politics lies in pushing the universal tendency to say one thing and do another to a surreal extreme. Trump is justly renowned for saying things that are not true. He may not get enough credit for the artful application of his falsehoods, which are not merely meant to bamboozle the public or to render questions of fact impenetrable but to suggest that he is inventing the world as he goes along, like some deity of ancient mythology.

Or maybe he just says whatever feels good at the time, and constructs half-baked excuses for it later. I’m not sure Trump was elected president because he vowed to get tough on the Chinese in trade talks — who knows why he won, really? There seem to be more reasons than people who voted for him. But he definitely made such promises. One interpretation of “Make America Great Again,” from the beginning, was the Steve Bannon homoerotic fantasy of broad-shouldered men with lunch buckets and overalls, going to work at shipyards and ironworks in a magic land of full employment, free of imported discount-store goods, hybrid cars and feminism.

If Trump’s tweets from March promising that “trade wars are good, and easy to win” reflected an understanding of the global economy that the word “childish” fails to capture — it’s more like a golden-retriever-ish view of the issue — his proposed tariffs on imported steel and aluminum were more complicated. As policy, they were a blunt instrument that likely wouldn’t have accomplished much. But as politics they were distinctively Trumpian, wrong-footing his friends and enemies alike.

Republicans hated the tariffs, because they hate everything that interferes with the most rapacious version of free trade. But they couldn’t do or say much of anything, because to defy Trump openly, as a Republican, is (at least for now) to sign your one-way ticket to golf-course retirement, bumming cigarettes from John Boehner and putting up with Bob Corker's frat-house pranks. Democrats — well, to be honest they mostly hated the tariffs too. But those who come from Rust Belt states or the party’s leftward fringe, like Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio or Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, had to follow the lead of the labor movement, which has wanted limits on imported raw materials for decades.

So that was neatly done, except that as usual with Trump, the whole thing was about performance, rather than substance or execution. Ten weeks or so later, it’s all just vaporware: There is no trade war, there are no tariffs and victory has been declared that looks an awful lot like defeat.

“China is winning Trump’s trade war,” ran the mocking headline atop Heather Long’s Sunday story in The Washington Post, which observed that Trump and his top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, had gotten no specific promises from the Chinese on reducing the trade deficit, prosecuting intellectual property theft (meaning the theft of patents and business secrets), limits on Chinese investment in the U.S. or much of anything else. If anything, the administration retreated on all fronts: Kudlow told reporters on Friday that Chinese negotiators had agreed to reduce the deficit by “at least” $200 billion, but the Chinese immediately denied it and the official statement released by the White House the next day mentioned no such number.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a onetime Trump primary opponent who is clearly trying to position himself as lead carrion bird of the post-Trump GOP, tweeted, “Why do U.S. officials always fall for China trickery?” (Which reads a lot like an actual Trump tweet, with superior literacy skills.) Former steel industry executive Dan DiMicco, who has tried to shore up Trump’s rearguard flank with the Bannonite “economic nationalism” crowd, tweeted plaintively, “Did president just blink?” (If you have to ask, Dan, you know the answer.)

Things were no better to Trump’s left, where Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — whose views on trade are largely Republican-lite — accused him of selling out “for a temporary purchase of goods.” Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a pro-union Democrat who had largely held fire on the tariff policy, issued a statement saying that after “the tough-guy rhetoric, the administration is simply getting rolled on trade with China.”

Of course it’s no surprise that Chinese state media proclaimed this result a great victory, in which “China didn’t ‘fold’” to Trump’s so-called pressure but “stood firm,” in the words of a China Daily editorial. But I’m not aware of anyone, anywhere, in the Western press who seriously suggests that’s a misinterpretation.

Salon columnist Patrick Lawrence has recently written about both the North Korea and Iran policy paradoxes in the context of shifting relations between the “West,” meaning the Euro-American alliance that has dominated the world since the end of the Cold War, and the “non-West.” (Everybody else, but China, India and Russia foremost among them.) That might be a useful way of framing whatever just happened in Trump’s across-the-board capitulation to the Chinese.

Donald Trump is a master of bluff and bluster — I mean, that’s why he got elected, right? But in this case, as in many others, he’s been exposed as a card shark with a dud hand who convinced everybody he had an ace up his sleeve when it was really an empty condom wrapper and an expired bus ticket to Peoria. That’s largely because the country he “leads,” although still the greatest military superpower in history, is running on credit and struggling with massive economic and structural problems that admit of no obvious solutions.

The New York Times and many other publications ran a photo comparison that apparently went viral on Weibo (the Chinese cognate of Twitter) and appears to speak all too clearly to the relative vibrancy of the two nations’ economies. One picture shows the recent round of U.S.-China trade talks, the other depicts the signing of the Boxer Protocol, the humiliating peace treaty of 1901 in which China made numerous concessions to the major Western powers.

"Over the past 100 years, American officials have gone from young to old, and Chinese officials have gone from old to young," wrote one Weibo user, according to the Times.

Sure, go on about freedom and democracy all you like — I value those things too, and I’m well aware I couldn’t do this job in China, at least not without learning to tread delicately enough to stay out of a labor camp. But among the corollary questions to emerge from Donald Trump’s collapsing trade war, I suppose, are the ones about how well we have safeguarded those things, where they have gotten us and what they have to do with economic prosperity.

Trump is an old guy who spins lies to make himself feel better, elected by a significant slice of the American population who want exactly the same thing. Losing (or abandoning) a trade war with China is not calamitous; it was never winnable. Losing our national sense of self and our shared dreams is a lot worse than that.

Can Larry Kudlow stop a trade war?

Trump's future economic adviser joined "Salon Talks" in 2016 to discuss trade, taxes and growth.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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