If there is one constant in President Donald Trumpās worldview, going back decades, it is his opposition to free trade. As noted by Andrew McKevitt in The Postās Made by History section, in 1988 Trump was complaining that one of our trade partners was ābeating the hell out of this countryā and āripping us off like no one has ever ripped us off before.ā His solution was a 20 percent tariff. āIām not afraid of a trade war,ā he said.
Trumpās beliefs havenāt changed, even if his targets have. In the 1980s, he was exercised about Japan. Today, heās worked up about China, Europe, Mexico, even Canada.
The other big change, of course, is that he now has the power to act on his beliefs.
Trump has launched the biggest trade war since the 1930s - remember how that turned out? - and the victims are piling up. Rather than back off, he is threatening still more tariffs and spending $12 billion to subsidize farmers hurt by the fallout. Trump exemplifies President Ronald Reaganās quip about the government: āIf it moves, tax itā (tariffs are taxes), and āif it stops moving, subsidize it.ā
āTariffs are the greatest!ā Trump recently enthused. āRemember, we are the āpiggy bankā thatās being robbed.ā How this squares with his oft-repeated boast that āthe economy of the United States is stronger than ever beforeā is anyoneās guess; logic has never been his strong suit. Trump thinks that trade is inherently a rip-off. He doesnāt seem to understand that we donāt just give foreigners money for nothing; we get computers and cars in return.
āIf we didnāt trade, weād save a hell of a lot of money,ā Trump said last week. Actually, if we didnāt trade, weād be living in a pre-capitalist, subsistence economy with levels of poverty that would make Liberia seem like Luxembourg by comparison.
But Trumpās worldview is at least consistent, right? Not so fast. Since June, he has been asserting, in between paeans to protectionism, that he is actually a free-trader. On July 24, he suggested that āboth the U.S. and the E.U. drop all Tariffs, Barriers and Subsidies! That would finally be called Free Market and Fair Trade! Hope they do it, we are ready - but they wonāt!ā This has led some to claim that Trumpās trade wars are a brilliant strategy to achieve a free-market nirvana.
Sorry, Iām not buying it. If Trump were actually interested in free trade, he wouldnāt have exited the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), threatened to destroy the North American Free Trade Agreement or discontinued negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Given his irrational fear of trade deficits, Trump could not live with the possibility that lowering barriers would increase the trade deficit, as U.S. consumers might prefer foreign products.
Trump is agitated about the 10 percent tariff that the European Union charges on imported cars and trucks compared with the 2.5 percent U.S. tariff on imported passenger cars. But there is no reason to expect that he would be willing to eliminate the 25 percent U.S. tariff on light trucks and sport-utility vehicles. The Detroit automakers are dependent on those vehicles: By 2022, they are expected toaccount for 84 percent of sales at General Motors, 90 percent at Ford and 97 percent at Fiat Chrysler.
Drop the tariffs, and the U.S. auto industry might suffer. You might even see more Volkswagen vans on the streets, as there were before the tariffs went up in 1963. Trump would see that as akin to a military defeat to his self-proclaimed āfoeā the European Union.
And thereās no chance that the president would risk an electoral wipeout in farm states by eliminating agricultural subsidies, even if Congress agreed - which it wouldnāt.
So if Trump isnāt actually a born-again free-trader, why does he occasionally sound like one? For the same reason he sometimes voices support for gun control (āTake the guns first, go through due process secondā) or comprehensive immigration reform (āYeah, I would like to do thatā). He loves to tell people what they want to hear. If heās talking to Democrats, he will tell them heās pro-gun control. If heās talking to Europeans, he will tell them heās pro-trade. He doesnāt mean it.
Trumpās faux positions camouflage his true intentions. For instance, he harps on the need to increase defense spending in Europe not because he wants to strengthen NATO but because he wants to weaken it, and he knows the Europeans canāt meet his demands for spending 4 percent of gross domestic product on defense. (Even the United States doesnāt spend that much.) Now he is posturing as a free-trader because he knows the EU āwonāt!ā eliminate āall Tariffs, Barriers and Subsidies.ā
Itās simply a ploy to shift the blame for a trade war that he started. At the risk of stating the obvious: If Trump really wanted lower tariffs, he would be lowering, not raising, them.
Max Boot is a Washington Post columnist.