One of the most effective policy planks “President” Trump ran on was the trade deficit, specifically, the one we had with China.
People responded viscerally to his tirades, with Trump claiming we were “raped,” our trade negotiators were “weak” and we had to get “tough and smart.” This crude, simplistic and hateful characterization resonated well with Trump’s base, which mirrors his primitive traits.
Trump then embarked on a policy of bluster and name-calling in preparation for negotiations. And while negotiations dragged on for a “Phase One” deal, the Chinese rolled Trump at every turn and played him for a rube.
The man who said “trade wars are good and easy to win” now has to face the fact that the trade deficit with China is almost exactly where it was the day he took office, and the policy path itself laid waste to farmers (who we had to bail out with taxpayer dollars) steel plants (because Mr. Trump didn’t understand the finer points of supply chain dynamics and raised the cost of raw materials for them) the fishing industry, (the Chinese took their business to Canada) and tariffs, which he tripled, and which The Great Man himself keeps insisting to this day the Chinese pay for what is in fact, a tax on American end users.
And the result of “Phase One?” The Chinese are throwing Trump around like a rag doll.
We were supposed to hit $100 billion of exports, but commitments from China are not even half that. Mr. Trump insisted in an interview that “China was more than living up to its commitments,” which you can take as seriously as his pledges of marital fidelity.
But for Mr. Trump and his sycophants, every hour brings a new utterance of idiotic fabulism, ready for consumption.
How did this happen? Partially it’s because of the “Only I can fix it” mentality, whereupon Trump fancied he could bang the table, intimidate the Chinese, and simply bypass internationally recognized protocols that have been in place for decades.
A lifelong bully and bloviator, he treated ally and enemy alike with contempt, accusing them of taking advantage of us gullible trusting Americans. The old barstool complaints about the expense of our global defense commitments resonated with the Boomers, who still think we didn’t win World World II enough, and everyone still owed us a favor.
The nostalgia for American manufacturing also played well with a segment of the population who are riven with simmering resentment. Trump would “bring manufacturing jobs back,” but anyone who actually manufactures a product knew that couldn’t be true.
Manufacturing seeks low production costs just as water seeks its own level, and that can manifest itself not only in lower-cost labor but also in automation, which has exacted as big a cost on jobs as has globalization. I spent the first 20 years of my working life in manufacturing, and while I laughed at every promise Trump made, I was horrified how readily an ignorant segment of the population readily believed him.
I will never understand the romance Americans maintain for the factory floor.
I have to remind people that Billy Joel wrote the song “Allentown” in 1982. For 40 years, we’ve been mourning the death of the factory, and its symbolism has outweighed its importance for ages now.
The same is true of another industry Trump promised to save, coal mining. The industry is down to its last 50,000 employees, driven out of business by cheap natural gas and the massive expansion of wind and solar power generation. You can’t overcome these trends by insulting them.
We can add this to the long list of economic failures by this administration. Whether it was job growth, GDP, trade, and worst of all, the near-total obliteration of our defenses against pandemic outbreaks, Mr. Trump has brought the nation to economic ruin, and could never match the record of his predecessor even if the pandemic never happened.
And remarkably, millions still believe the opposite.