Trump’s Tariffs went into effect last week, and the response from America’s trading partners has been predictable–with one possible caveat. The targeted nations have responded by imposing their own tariffs, as expected–but they have also focused those retaliatory measures on goods produced in states that supported Trump. It’s an interesting gambit; we’ll see how it plays out.
The Republican Party used to be adamantly opposed to tariffs and trade wars, but the supine and complicit GOP Senators and Representatives currently serving have barely uttered a peep. It isn’t because they don’t know the dangers a trade war poses to the recovery we are currently enjoying–it’s because they must once again choose between the remaining shreds of their integrity and their business constituents, on the one hand, and the rabid Trump supporters who form a majority of the shrinking party’s base on the other.
As usual, Paul Krugman’s analysis of the political calculations involved is direct and on point. Krugman connects two very important dots: the longstanding Faustian bargain between big business and the GOP’s racist foot-soldiers, and the party’s war on expertise and evidence.
The imminent prospect of a trade war, it seems, concentrates the mind. Until very recently, big business and the institutions that represent its interests didn’t seem to be taking President Trump’s protectionist rhetoric very seriously. After all, corporations have invested trillions based on the belief that world markets would remain open, that U.S. industry would retain access to both foreign customers and foreign suppliers.
Trump wouldn’t put all those investments at risk, would he?
Yes, he would — and the belated recognition that his tough talk on trade was serious has spurred a flurry of action. Major corporations and trade associations are sending letters to the administration warning that its policies will cost more jobs than they create. Meanwhile, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has begun an advertising campaign to convince voters of the benefits of free trade.
As Krugman notes, there is a heaping pile of “just deserts” here; corporate America has played cynical politics for years and is reaping what it sowed.
What do I mean by cynical politics? Partly I mean the tacit alliance between businesses and the wealthy, on one side, and racists on the other, that is the essence of the modern conservative movement.
For a long time business seemed to have this game under control: win elections with racial dog whistles, then turn to an agenda of tax cuts and deregulation. But sooner or later something like Trump was going to happen: a candidate who meant the racism seriously, with the enthusiastic support of the Republican base, and couldn’t be controlled.
The nature of that alliance became abundantly clear to anyone paying attention in 2016. But Krugman’s other important point is still insufficiently appreciated.
When organizations like the Chamber of Commerce or the Heritage Foundation declare that Trump’s tariffs are a bad idea, they are on solid intellectual ground: All, and I mean all, economic experts agree. But they don’t have any credibility, because these same conservative institutions have spent decades making war on expertise.
The most obvious case is climate change, where conservative organizations, very much including the chamber, have long acted as “merchants of doubt,” manufacturing skepticism and blocking action in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s hard to pivot from “pay no attention to those so-called experts who say the planet is warming” to “protectionism is bad — all the experts agree.”
Similarly, organizations like Heritage have long promoted supply-side economics, a.k.a., voodoo economics — the claim that tax cuts will produce huge growth and pay for themselves — even though no economic experts agree. So they’ve already accepted the principle that it’s O.K. to talk economic nonsense if it’s politically convenient. Now comes Trump with different nonsense, saying “trade wars are good, and easy to win.” How can they convince anyone that his nonsense is bad, while theirs was good.
Krugman ends his analysis by pointing to another looming threat to business (and the rest of us): authoritarianism. As he notes, it isn’t simply world trade that’s at risk, but the rule of law. “And it’s at risk in part because big businesses abandoned all principle in the pursuit of tax cuts.”
Meanwhile, the experts who are scorned by this administration are weighing in on the likely consequences of Trump’s economic ignorance:
There’s no formal definition of what constitutes a trade war, but the escalating exchange of trade barriers between the United States and its trading partners has hit a point where most economists say there will be a negative impact. Companies will scale back on investments, growth will slow, consumers will pay more for some items, and there could be more job losses. The Federal Reserve warned Thursday some companies are already scaling back or postponing plans.
We all need to hang on tight, because when you give the keys of your economic vehicle to a guy who couldn’t pass the drivers’ test, your ride is likely to be something between bumpy and disastrous.