Mr. Trump today signed his tariff order today, with much fanfare and a goodly measure of bewilderment among allies of the United States. The devotion to free trade has been talismanic among the political classes in this country for so long that Mr. Trump’s actions seem not just imprudent but heretical.
Although the extent of the tariffs was not quite as broad as originally advertised, the exclusion of Canada and Mexico (from which the United States receives roughly 25% of its steel imports) made the whole thing more and not less confusing. The whole affair is emblematic of a regime in which discombobulated calculation is mixed with lashings of white male rage. In our spectacular civilisation, this works better than one might expect.
To understand this, it is important to keep the following premise in mind. The politics of the spectacle create a situation in which actions become disconnected from their consequences. In part, this an inescapable element of mass politics. The economics of populous industrial states are of such complexity that it is nearly impossible to connect discreet actions and their consequences. This has been the case since at least since the era of the New Deal, and arguably even before. As such, Mr. Trump’s actions (and not only with regard to tariffs) constitute a sort of political theatre, a performance whose goal is to convey an impression rather than a piece of calculated statecraft.
Trump has conned working class people into cuts in their Social Security, cuts in Medicaid, cuts in education for their children, to give himself and his ultra wealthy friends a tax break….Do you really think a billionaire Sociopath from New York wants to help you? pic.twitter.com/nrH6vouHYn
— Bob Burnell Ed.S. (@bob_burrell) March 9, 2018
This is crucial, as it allows one to understand why Mr. Trump has been so willing to put aside one of the most widely held nostrums of American political life. In doing so he has managed to find one of those rare issues on which there is general agreement throughout the congressional delegations of both parties. The Democrats have been mostly silent on this issue. This is partly because the party leaders are aware of how little traction that devotion to free trade got them with the white working class (with whose support they are obsessed). But they are also content to allow their political opponents to stew in their own juices, hoping that this will cause further damage to the Republican brand.
For their part, the Republicans have limited themselves to expressing their concern but not actually doing anything. And why would they? For better or worse they are stuck with Mr. Trump. Having long ago made the calculation that, although he does some embarrassing things, having him in the White House allows them to achieve long-term goals (such as burning away the last shreds of the American welfare state) even at the risk of a little short-term pain. They know that should his reign prove too troublesome, they can always combine with the Democrats to get the necessary votes for impeachment. Until that point arrives, Mr. Trump can be counted on to undertake plenty of actions favourable to the financial position of those at the very top of the income distribution.
Given that, the Republican electoral base has not been significantly knocked off its stride by a conviction for assault. For Mr. Trump himself, this was yet another moment which illustrates the brilliance of the episode of Seinfeld in which the illocutionary force of the statement “these pretzels are making me thirsty” might have nothing to do with snack foods or thirst.
One may question the extent to which anyone in the White House knows anything about basic macroeconomics (limited to begin with and with the departure of Gary Cohn now infinitesimal). But perhaps someone there has registered the thought that, although trade wars tend to be a loser for everyone involved, that does not necessarily imply that everyone loses equally. If any serious thought has been devoted to the technical aspects of these questions around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the idea must be that even if we lose, others will lose more,
ICYMI: Trump sent off economic advisor Gary Cohn with an anti-Semitic dog whistle pic.twitter.com/PmSnazaiLq
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) March 9, 2018
Some might object that Roy Moore didn’t win. But Moore retained roughly 60% of the Republican electorate which, in practical terms, gives one a pretty good idea of exactly how much weight Christian values carry among notionally evangelical voters. In all likelihood, Moore lost because a proportion of his voter base stayed home, not because they actually voted for his opponent (whose role in jailing child-murdering Klansmen probably counted against him with Alabama Republicans).
However, it is also clear that the actual consequences of the policy are less important than the act of enacting it. In part, this is a feature of large industrial democracies. Economies are complex, and even at the best of times, it is difficult to reliably associate policies and their consequences. Mr. Trump has grabbed this particular ball and run with it. The tariffs that he has put in place are really not about the economic effects that they will have. They are a function of perceived white male disempowerment, and a model of the sort of lashing out that this condition engenders.
Trump voters in the upper reaches of the income distribution can simply adjust their portfolios to account for the increased turbulence that trade wars might cause. For those further down, the consequences can be plausibly dissociated from Mr. Trump. He is about creating emotional responses, not crafting policies. As such, any losses suffered by those in Mr. Trump’s base can be chalked up to other externalities or put down to “if the leader only knew”.
The point of the tariffs is not protection of U.S. industries or of U.S. workers. That much is clear from the fact that Mr. Trump chose to exclude the sources of a quarter of steel imports from the restrictions. The point was that Mr. Trump has been seen to be taking some kind of punitive action against someone. It’s not clear exactly against whom. Mr. Trump likes to name enemies, and the particular enemy he seems to be interested in is China. China produces a lot of steel, but (comparatively speaking) they don’t export a lot of it the United States.
The point of Mr. Trump’s action is its implicit content, not its explicit policy implications. In a year (or two) when the content of these policies becomes manifest, the actions that gave birth to them will have long been pushed out of the news cycle by other moments of administration’s bumbling. But the facts of the matter are not the point. The point is that Mr. Trump is seen to be doing something. What he’s actually doing is a matter of no concern.
Photograph courtesy of Steve Baker. Published under a Creative Commons license.