The Unified Theory of Trump 2

The road doesn't matter as long as the destination is correct.

There has never been a president like Donald J. Trump, and for many of us, it's hard to be sure whether that's a good or a bad thing.  Conservative judges - good!  Three wives - bad!  But they're all still friends, and as Vice President Pence puts it, "you can't fake good kids," so... not so bad?

It might be easier to accept his program if he had clear political principles, and in some ways he does - he's pretty plainly opposed to abortion and illegal immigration, for example.  Where's his detailed economic plans, though?  He mouths the usual platitudes about making Americans better off, but what policies is he in favor of and opposed to, specifically?  Even more importantly, why?

These are understandable questions given that we're used to generations of politicians issuing detailed party platforms and position statements.  Donald Trump's approach to government is far simpler than that - so much so that it's easy to overlook.  But it's right there as plain as the hat on his head: Make America Great Again!

As we saw in the first article in this series, President Trump's economic and foreign policy is largely based on a return to the America of Trump's childhood in the 1950s and 1960s - an America in which, polls tell us, most Americans felt a whole lot better about their nation and the future than they do today.  But his path to getting there is, perhaps, a little counterintuitive, and that makes people nervous.

They shouldn't be.  In reality, President Trump is demonstrating the good strategy and fantastic negotiating ability that made him a billionaire - well, that, plus the "small loan of $1 million" he started with.

White And Black Cats

Consider the subject of free trade and tariffs.  Mr. Trump has spent his whole life as a businessman, and businessmen are generally in favor of trade because it's one more way to make money.  The Trump Organization has made plenty of money here in the United States, but there are Trump buildings overseas and countless foreigners have used their overseas money to buy into American Trump property.  You'd think he would be in favor of lower tariffs just as he likes lower taxes: both increase business.

But for a free trader, he talks about tariffs a great deal: when he's not implementing them (China), he's threatening them (Canada, Mexico, Europe, and many other places).  Is he just untrustworthy, like so many other politicians?  Or does he not know his own mind?

Those are the wrong questions: they are confusing the goal with the means.  After two years of frenetic blustering and backroom negotiations, it's plain to see what he's up to if you care to look.

Yes, in principle, President Trump likes and wants free trade - by which he means, trade as free from regulations and tariffs as possible.  But he wants this in both directions.

Since WWII, America has had a habit of getting into "free-trade" agreements which work only one way.  The other country can freely sell their goods here in America.  But when we try to ship American goods over there, well, all of a sudden there are all sorts of obstacles.  Not tariffs, no! - those would violate the treaty.  Instead, our goods are stymied by a myriad of complex regulations, "standards," labor laws, and on and on - with the result that, where once America was the world's factory, now we are the world's debtor.

This is what President Trump is trying to stop - not trade, not free trade, but imbalanced and unfair trade.  And like any good pragmatic businessman, Trump looks for the most effective route to this goal - which happens to be threats of tariffs.

Think about it for a moment.  There are all kinds of things we buy from other countries, an unfortunate number of which we simply don't make here at all anymore.  But there is nothing important that we buy from only one other country.

On the other hand, America is the largest customer for a great many countries - which means that, if suddenly cut off from our markets, their economies would collapse.

What a powerful threat!  China does a great deal of trade with Europe, but there's no way Europe could buy everything the Chinese currently sell in America anytime soon.  But we could buy electronics from Taiwan, toys from Malaysia, clothes from Indonesia, and so on down the line.  A serious trade dispute would put half of China out on the street - most likely leading to a revolution and the violent overthrow of the current Communist leadership.

The current Communist leadership, not being stupid, knows this very well.  Many other countries are smart enough to realize it too, which is why Mr. Trump's threats to renegotiate NAFTA led to - surprise! - a successfully renegotiated NAFTA, called USMCA.

In short: Mr. Trump threatens to raise tariffs in order to get other countries to lower their barriers to American goods.  The end result is a world of more free trade, not less - but America benefits most of all.

Yes, occasionally it's necessary to slap on higher tariffs just to persuade others that we're not bluffing.  As the Washington Post reported:

Trump knows that most of our trading partners don’t really want free trade; they want managed trade, where they can get access to U.S. markets while protecting certain industries from U.S. competition. Trump’s strategy to get them to drop these protectionist barriers is to impose crushing tariffs.

For most of Mr. Trump's lifetime, American politicians of both parties have sworn fealty to the idea that trade should always be free, and if it's only free in one direction,well, that's just the way it goes.  This has led to countless industries moving overseas and a loss of the good blue-collar jobs that were so common when Mr. Trump was a boy.

He wants to bring at least some of those jobs back.  The best way to do that is to ensure trade that is both free and fair, which means being willing to risk more than the other guy.  Haven't any of his detractors actually read The Art of the Deal?  "Be prepared to walk away" - and he is, which means his counterparts can't.

Modern politics has come to center around the single news cycle - what did people do today?  If you look at President Trump that way, though, you'll completely miss the big picture of where he is going over time.

In short, Donald Trump is the master of the political moonwalk.  He doesn't care what he looks like today as long as he gets where he's going by whatever means works.  Indeed, his Communist counterparts are intimately familiar with this concept - after all, it was their own leader, Deng Xiaoping, who said, "It doesn't matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice!"

What does Donald Trump want most of all?  An American economy like that of the 1950s, when any hard-working individual could land a steady job paying middle-class wages.  He knows a trade war is not the way to accomplish that; he also knows that the occasional trade skirmish can lead to a trade victory which will create far more jobs than it costs.  You have to spend money to make money; he's running his economic negotiations the same way, and it works.

There's a thinly-sourced story about Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort that perhaps illustrates this point - for which we can even quote the lefty "fact-checker" Snopes:

When Trump purchased and rebuilt Mar-A-Lago the Grand mansion and estate in Palm beach, Florida he got into a dispute with the city, who are well known for being strict on zoning regulations. Trump put up a 50 foot flag pole even though 30 foot is the maximum allowed. The city imposed a 1,000 dollar fine per day. While Trump and the city argued back and forth, finally when the fine had reached 120,000 dollars Trump proposed a solution. He would donate that amount to veterans organizations, would move the flag and pole to a different location in front of the mansion and would only use a 30 foot flag pole. The city agreed. So Trump brought in the company who does Golf course construction had them build a 20 foot high grassy hill and put a 30 foot flag pole on top of it.

The precise details are sketchy, but as best as we can tell, what happened at the end of the day?  Trump technically obeyed a pettifogging rule, while making all concerned look ridiculous; paid money which a) he could tax-deduct and b) made him look good, and... ended up with the flag at exactly the height he wanted it to be, the rules go hang.  And made the Left hate him.

That's how he gets stuff done, whether it be trade negotiations or anything else: the precise route to success is irrelevant, as long as success is achieved.

But there are far more contentious issues than trade, where just about everyone agrees in principle that it's a Good Thing.  What can we learn about Mr. Trump's approach to contentious issues, where large numbers of people will hate him no matter what he does?  That's the topic of the next article in this series.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Partisanship.
Reader Comments

You've got Trump on trade with China entirely wrong.

Trump knows that import tariffs hit American consumers. So why does he do it?

Because China is ripping the US off for trillions of dollars in IP theft.

That is the real war. Tariffs are only the weapon, not the objective.

Tariffs make Americans poorer. So does IP theft, arguably in a far larger amount.

October 23, 2018 6:26 AM
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