Economy & Business

Trump’s Tariffs Amount to Symbolism, Not Substance. Thank God.

President Donald Trump signs a proclamation placing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports on March 8, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
After vowing not to, he exempted two of our biggest sources of steel.

On Thursday, President Trump signed a “proclamation” regarding tariffs on steel and aluminum imported to the United States. The proclamation came with folks wearing hard hats in the Oval Office, and if there are folks whose dads worked for steel mills in 1978 wearing hard hats in the Oval Office, there is a very good chance the politics are solid for the president.

And indeed, “doing something” about that steel-dumping China taking jobs from blue-collar deplorables in Pennsylvania is good politics. Regardless of how one feels about free trade, mercantilist economics, threats of retaliation, taxation, and the law of comparative advantage, the populist trend is alive and well, and any attempt to help “us” and to get “them” is good politics.

But out of curiosity, my factory-going friends — or, more accurately, Republicans who have never met someone who worked in a factory, but who spilled the #MAGA milk in their coffee and haven’t been the same since — why did the steel companies’ stock prices all drop, significantly, when the actual proclamation came?

Consider these statements:

“We have made clear these will be across-the-board tariffs with no exclusions. The problem with exclusions is that they are a slippery slope. Once you start, where do you stop?” — White House, March 2 (Wall Street Journal)

“There will be no country exclusions.” — Pete Navarro, President Trump’s radical trade adviser, March 4 (CNN’s State of the Union)

“I have no reason to think he is going to change.” — Wilbur Ross, President Trump’s protectionist commerce secretary, March 4 (NBC’s Meet the Press)

And then consider this comment from Thursday, March 8, the day of the proclamation:

“We are excusing Mexico and Canada, and I may consider an exclusion for Australia as well.” – President Donald J. Trump

Now don’t get me wrong. Those exclusions are why this policy proclamation is just a mild nuisance instead of a potentially global catastrophe. The principled and cogent voices to whom the president still listens were diligent, persistent, and persuasive. From the departing Gary Cohn to Speaker Paul Ryan to campaign advisers Larry Kudlow and Stephen Moore, those on the free-market side of the argument did not resign themselves to the reality of Trump’s protectionist impulses, and were able in just 72 hours to remove many of the “teeth” from these silly tariffs. I say this as a compliment to the president — the policy got better from what he announced the week prior, as it should have, and I am not complaining.

But I ask you, how many sycophants touting the beauty of these tariffs understand that in less than a week, the president took out two countries that provide about a quarter of our imported steel? The answer is, not many. Now perhaps these are politically astute #MAGA lovers, and they are celebrating the politics of the moment, while also recognizing that the president didn’t actually follow through on anything he said he was going to do (“Thank God!” — me). And I am sure there are plenty who are astute enough to see that. But consider for a moment what we are acknowledging. We have a camp of folks who are celebrating a policy that they know nothing about, care nothing about, or just plain refuse to understand. Or, we have a camp of folks who get it but don’t care that the events of this last week have been all sizzle and no steak — all hat and no cattle. Either ignorant, or token. Is there no door No. 3?

The pro-free-trade crowd, of which I am a proud member, knows that China is misbehaving — and that this initiative does nothing whatsoever to address the problem, because China provides only about 2 percent of our steel imports. It allowed anti-trade rhetoric to slosh around for ten days, but the ultimate “proclamation” (which has questionable or no teeth even in its watered-down final version) did little to hit at what the rhetoric was intended to address.

The anti-free-trade crowd got a lot of air time the last ten days and is perhaps positioned for a new policy victory, depending on which way the wind blows in the Oval Office in the months ahead. They got a small victory on substance but a huge regression from what the victory was supposed to be just a week or so ago.

And what did everyone else get — “everyone else” being those who really have no deeply held views on free trade, global economics, or much of anything else, it often seems? They got a press conference with people wearing hard hats. Perhaps that is good enough for the president. And perhaps it is good enough for them.

Those who celebrate poetic victories and care not for substance in policy are celebrating a vapor in the wind.

But there are two lessons here that have to be absorbed. Those who bemoan the lack of substance in the present environment, who wish to make intellectually and logically defensible arguments in the public square, must never forget that while ideas may have consequences, people are inspired by poetry. I scoff at those who think a marketing strategy is more important for our movement than good sense, but that does not mean a marketing strategy is not important. The poetry of the moment matters, for those who want good ideas to carry the day.

But on the other side, those who celebrate poetic victories and care not for substance in policy are celebrating a vapor in the wind. One day our photo op can carry the day. The next day, the other side makes a better poster. And on and on we go. Tomorrow, China keeps “dumping steel” (whatever that means). Steel factories keep automating and technologizing.

And yet somehow, #MAGA keeps celebrating.