In one way, Donald Trump’s attack on our foreign trade partners resembles his attack on immigrants: in each case, the attack is framed as a response to evildoing that exists only in his imagination. No, there isn’t a wave of violent crime by immigrants, and MS-13 isn’t taking over American towns; no, the European Union doesn’t have “horrific” tariffs on U.S. products (the average tariff is only 3 percent).
In another way, however, the trade crisis is quite different from the humanitarian crisis at the border. Children ripped from their parents and put in cages can’t retaliate. Furious foreign governments, many of them U.S. allies that feel betrayed, can and will.
But all indications are that Trump and his advisers still don’t get it. They remain blithely ignorant about what they’re getting into.
Back in March, as the U.S. was imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports – and yes, justifying its actions against Canada (!) on the grounds of national security – Peter Navarro, the White House trade czar, was asked about possible retaliation. “I don’t believe any country will retaliate,” he declared, basing his claim on the supposed upper hand America has because we import more than we export.
On Sunday, Canada – a country that, by the way, imports about as much from us as it exports in return – announced retaliatory tariffs against $12.6 billion of U.S. products.
The European Union and China have also announced retaliatory tariffs. Mexico, with its new leftist president-elect, is hardly likely to be accommodating. And the EU has warned that it will go much bigger if Trump follows through on his threat to put tariffs on European cars, potentially imposing retaliatory tariffs on almost $300 billion of U.S. exports.
It’s important to understand that this isn’t the normal give and take of trade disputes.
The rules of world trade, established under U.S. leadership in the 1940s and enforced by the World Trade Organization, do allow some flexibility. For example, countries are allowed to impose temporary tariffs in the face of import surges, like the tariff Barack Obama imposed on Chinese tires back in 2009.
But both the scale and the motivation behind the Trump tariffs – their obviously fraudulent national security rationale – are something new. They amount to rejecting the rules of the game we created; the EU, in its warning, bluntly calls U.S. actions “disregard for international law.” Sure enough, Axios reports that the Trump administration has drafted legislation that would effectively take us out of the WTO.
The U.S. is now behaving in ways that could all too easily lead to a breakdown of the whole trading system and a drastic, disruptive reduction in world trade.
Yet Trump appears to believe that the whole world will bow down to U.S. economic power and his deal-making prowess. “Every country is calling every day, saying, ‘Let’s make a deal’” on trade, he told Fox News.
Of course, he also declared that the head of U.S. Steel called to tell him that the company was opening six new facilities; it isn’t, and the conversation apparently never happened.
So we’re heading into a trade war, and it’s hard to see how the escalation ends. After all, foreign governments literally can’t give Trump what he wants, because he wants them to stop doing things they aren’t actually doing.
How will all of this affect the U.S. economy? Exporters will be hurt, of course – and exports support around 10 million jobs. Some industries that compete with imports might end up adding jobs. But they wouldn’t be the same jobs, in the same places: A trade war would cause huge worker displacement.
And what’s especially striking right now is that even industries Trump claims he wants to help are protesting his policies, urging him to reverse course. General Motors warns that proposed auto tariffs could lead to “less investment, fewer jobs and lower wages for our employees.” The Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association has urged the administration to stand down, declaring that “counterproductive unilateral actions” will “erode U.S. jobs and growth” while doing nothing to protect national security.
What do these industries understand that Trump and Company don’t? That international economics isn’t a game in which whoever runs trade surpluses wins, and that disrupting global supply chains can hurt almost everyone.
But as I said, none of this seems to be getting through. Another administration might look at foreign retaliation, industry protests and stories about jobs lost due to its tariffs and consider the possibility that it’s on the wrong path. This administration? Never.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think most businesses, or most investors in financial markets, are taking the threat of trade war seriously enough. They’re acting as if this is a passing phase, as if the grown-ups will step in and stop this downward spiral before it goes too far.
But there are no grown-ups in this administration, which basically makes policy by temper tantrum. A full-blown trade war looks all too possible; in fact, it may already have begun.