Why Trump will get cold feet on trade

Matthew Walther

Alex Wong/Getty Images

March 5, 2018

On Friday it was revealed that every living American between the ages of 17 and 107 is an expert in both the history of tariff policy and the capabilities of the U.S. domestic steel industry. Never has so bloodless and prudential a decision as President Trump's modest announcement on steel and aluminum tariffs been denounced with such immoderate fury — at least not since education as we know it and freedom of speech disappeared in an instant following the FCC's decision to abandon net neutrality.

The president's critics need not have bothered. Two weeks from now these tariffs will be another uninteresting artifact in the history of this bizarre administration. Give it a few days. Wait for the stock market to tank a bit more. Listen to the Fox News interviews with businessmen and economists. Trump will change his mind about tariffs.

Such a rapid reversal following the proclamation of a controversial policy is nothing new for Trump. We saw it earlier last week when Trump, in the course of about 24 hours, went from calling for gun control measures and mocking Republicans and Democrats alike for being afraid of the NRA to gleefully tweeting about the success of his own recent meeting with representatives from, well, the NRA. We have seen it before with everything from single-payer health care and raising taxes on the wealthy, both of which he was inclined to support before winning the White House, to foreign policy to immigration to personnel decisions in his own administration.

We have always known that Trump is, at least in theory, flexible on a large number of questions where the GOP allows only one answer. It had until recently been assumed that there were a handful of issues on which he refused to compromise — the safety net, for example. This turned out to be a false assumption. A few weeks ago the White House released a budget, amid much fanfare from the president himself, that was radical even by the standards of Republican orthodoxy in its contempt for the poor and the marginalized. It arrived out of nowhere and we have already almost forgotten that there was any reason it might have been regarded as shocking. Like an aging palsied late Roman emperor or a decadent Manchu potentate in the last days of that decayed house, Trump really does get all his ideas from his (figurative) eunuchs. All it takes is one whisper from Mick Mulvaney and Trump's promises about the welfare state are forgotten.

If the president will fold on the safety net and the wall and Afghanistan, why would anyone ever imagine that he will hold fast on trade? Trump believes in nothing per se. So far from being an inflexible ideologue he is the sort of politician who has never found himself incapable of having his mind changed. If a deal sounds good, he'll make it. If it sounds bad, 15 minutes or four days later, he'll change his mind and pretend that the past never happened.

It is clear from the statement released by the White House and from Trump's tweets on the subject that he has no idea what the goals or implications of his own administration's trade policy are supposed to be. He isn't thinking about steel or about the likelihood that all the domestic manufacturers who at present depend upon imported steel and aluminum will be able to get what they need without going abroad. He has a vague notion that the United States is "losing" because other countries have decided to "get cute." The solution to this is "trade wars," which seem to exist for him at the level of a team challenge in one of the game shows he used to host and which are also "good" and "easy to win."

This is not the mental position from which a person refuses to retreat. Indeed, it is so lacking in substance that a retreat from it would in fact be nothing of the kind. All he has to do is decide that China or Germany or Canada or whoever the supposed purveyor of these "cute" antics is supposed to be has absorbed whatever amorphous message he was supposed to be sending. Then the "war" will be over before so much as a single aluminum order is delayed.

As I write this the president is talking to someone — a leader from the congressional GOP, a business acquaintance, his daughter Ivanka, Gary Cohn, or another of his pro-free-trade advisers. It is a mistake to imagine that he does not care about other people's opinions; they are the only things he cares about. Which is why at the end of the day he will not pursue any course of action that will be criticized by people close to him.