National Opinions

A $12 billion solution to a political problem of Trump’s own making

Paul Waldman
Paul Waldman

Not too long ago, conservatives would say that though they relentlessly advocated the interests of corporations, it was only because of their belief in the merciless fairness of free markets. They opposed “cronyism” and “picking winners and losers,” hoping that government would simply get out of the way and let the invisible hand do its work.

It was never really true — they were always quite happy to have the government pick certain kinds of winners and losers. But now look what’s happening, as The Washington Post reported July 24:

“The U.S. Agriculture Department announced Tuesday a $12 billion package of emergency aid for farmers caught in the midst of President [Donald] Trump’s escalating trade war, the latest sign that growing tensions between the United States and other countries will not end soon.

“Trump ordered Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to prepare a range of options several months ago, amid complaints from farmers that their products faced retaliatory tariffs from China and other countries. The new package of government assistance funds announced Tuesday and will go into effect in September.

“The aid package will target soybean farmers, dairy farmers, and pork producers, among others. White House officials hope it will temporarily quiet some of the unease from farm groups, but the new plan could revive debates about taxpayer-funded bailouts and the degree to which Trump’s trade strategy is leading to unforeseen costs.”

You can almost hear the squirming from Republicans. Let’s see: abandoning free-trade principles that the GOP has advocated for years and offering a government bailout to a favored constituency to handle the predictable effects of tariffs?

In the morning, before this new initiative was announced, Trump offered on Twitter an updated version of his earlier contention that “Trade wars are good, and easy to win”: “Tariffs are the greatest! Either a country which has treated the United States unfairly on Trade negotiates a fair deal, or it gets hit with Tariffs. It’s as simple as that - and everybody’s talking! Remember, we are the “piggy bank” that’s being robbed. All will be Great!” — July 24, 2018

Well, that’s reassuring. The taxpayers just have to fork over $12 billion for the people being harmed by Trump’s trade war, even though nobody was supposed to be harmed, because it was all going to be so easy. What’s the problem?

The actual problem is a political one, and that’s what the $12 billion is meant to address. That problem isn’t just that Trump’s trade war is going to impose pain on Americans, but that it’s going to disproportionately hurt Americans from places that voted for Trump. He may sincerely be dismayed by that fact — he has shown again and again that he considers himself the president of not all Americans but the people and places that support him — but it’s also terribly dangerous for one of his policies to so directly harm those who backed him in 2016, and who must back him again if he is to win reelection. After all, they might get the idea that Trump has not created the economic nirvana he promised, and not bother to turn out in 2020.

But perhaps I’m being too cynical. These are farmers, you might say. The salt of the Earth, the heart of the heartland, the men and women who put food on your table. Just as we absolutely must do whatever we can to save coal mining jobs, surely we can spare no expense to aid farmers?

Farmers are terrific, don’t get me wrong. But we have to acknowledge that this administration is propagating a kind of moral hierarchy of employment in which some kinds of Americans are worthy of more consideration and assistance by virtue of where they live or what they do (or used to do) for a living than the rest of us. Think about all the effort Trump has expended promising people in coal country that he’ll restore all those mining jobs.

Yet he never went to a shuttered Sears store and made a similar promise to the people who have lost their jobs in what some people refer to as the “retail apocalypse.” As Paul Krugman noted last year: “Overall, department stores employ a third fewer people now than they did in 2001. That’s half a million traditional jobs gone — about eighteen times as many jobs as were lost in coal mining over the same period.”

There were many reasons, lots of them having to do with free markets, that those jobs were lost — in both coal and retail. In this case, though, the threat comes directly from Trump administration policies. Much as none of us wants to see any soybean farmers bankrupted, we must remember that this was completely avoidable. And that when Trump gets a dumb idea, all of us will usually end up paying.

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