Saturday, June 2, 2018

Will Republicans Pay the Price for Trump's Trade War?


While all of us were being distracted by the antics of Roseanne Barr and Samantha Bee, something far more impactful was happening: Donald Trump went ahead and imposed tariffs on the European Union, Canada and Mexico. The amounts of the tariffs are enormous and unprecedented: 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum. Trump had threatened he would move forward with them back in March; as of this past Thursday the threat became a reality.

Economists are already scrambling to determine the impact this trade war will have on the American economy. The Trade Partnership estimates that for very job that will be saved by the tariffs, as many as five will be lost. Hardest hit will be the trade and distribution, as well as the construction industries. And most of those lost jobs will be in the areas of the country that delivered Trump the presidency.

The real question, however, is whether Republicans will pay a price at the polls for Trump's twisted brand of nationalism. Some have their doubts. Dana Milbank in The Washington Post pointed out that "the main predictor of support for Trump is racial anxiety — far more than economic anxiety." The election results of 2016 seem to back him up. The whiter the population, the better Trump fared.

New York state was a case in point. While Hillary Clinton won it going away in 2016, there were areas that Trump carried like Richmond (Staten Island) and Suffolk counties. To the best of my knowledge neither of those counties are currently under any economic duress, unless you think rush hour traffic on the Staten Island and Long Island Expressways somehow qualifies as economic stress; to which I would say try driving on the BQE or the Major Deegan sometime. If that doesn't subtract two years from your life nothing will.

No, what both these counties have in common is their large white populations. Like upstate New York, they were susceptible to Trump's nativist rhetoric. Dozens of rallies during the campaign ginning up decades of repressed white resentment over the gains of minorities eventually took their toll. It was the same across the country: the further you got from the urban areas, the redder the election returns were.

But while I agree with Milbank's general assessment regarding racial anxiety being a primary motive for most Trump voters, I'm not prepared to dismiss outright the role that economic anxiety might've played. Let's not forget that many of the votes Trump received in the Rust Belt states were from people who for the last couple of decades have been living paycheck to paycheck. They'd been reliable Democratic voters since the Clinton years and many of them felt betrayed by the two-party system. The very people Trump courted were also the same people Bernie Sanders went after. Disaffected voters looking for a sign of hope; the perfect target for a carpet bagger like Trump.

Let's also not forget that the margins Trump won both Wisconsin and Michigan by were razor thin. In fact, when you combine the results of those two states with those of Pennsylvania, Trump won the 2016 election by just over 80 thousand votes. Even a 1 to 2 percent swing in the electorate could mean the difference between a one-term presidency or a two-term presidency. Translation, he can't afford to piss off any of those voters, and starting a trade war which could lead to higher prices and cripple the U.S. economy is a pretty damn good way of doing just that.

Don't kid yourself. Yes, Trump rode the wave of American exceptionalism into the White House, but there are limits as to what consumers will give up for a slogan. Back in April of 2016, a poll taken by the AP said that while 75 percent of consumers would prefer to buy American-made products, only 30 percent said they would actually pay more for them. When given a specific choice between two pairs of pants, one made in the U.S. that cost more and the other made elsewhere that were cheaper, 67 percent said they'd buy the cheaper import.

It seems patriotism has its limits and they begin and end at the cash register. That's why Republicans are rightly terrified at the prospect of Lord Fauntleroy fucking things up for them just in time for the midterms. They were already looking at potentially huge losses in the House; this kind of stunt could put their slim Senate majority in jeopardy.

So, to answer the 64 thousand dollar question from above, I do believe Republicans will pay a price at the polls for this ridiculous trade war that Trump has started and for which Europe, Canada and Mexico will almost certainly retaliate. But only if Democrats can seize upon the opportunity that fate has given them. They must make it clear to the voters that a domestic policy based on protectionism can have profound consequences for our economy. Not only won’t it bring back the jobs that were lost due to automation and cheaper imports, it will damage our ability to export goods and services abroad, which will only lead to further job losses across the board.

Of course, assuming Democrats can make this or anything clear is always a big risk. We are after all talking about people who could turn a sentence into a novel. Expecting them to explain to voters the connection between tariffs and higher consumer prices without sounding like a college professor at Harvard the day before a midterm is akin to asking your local mechanic to perform a kidney transplant in his shop.

Which probably means the GOP should relax and go get a Fresca.

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