Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

On May 31, 2019, Donald Trump decided to take the world economy hostage in the service of white supremacy. He announced a series of escalating tariffs on Mexico to begin on June 10 unless Mexico did more to prevent desperate refugees from legally seeking asylum in the United States. The tariffs would have devastating consequences for both the American and Mexican economies, with reverberations around the world at a time when many signs already point toward potential economic downturn.

There is no legitimate, practical reason for preventing refugees from seeking asylum, except to cripple efforts to treat asylum seekers humanely. Even if you were to accept conservative arguments that those seeking asylum sometimes silently join the undocumented population in the United States, and even if you ignore the moral responsibility of U.S. drug policy and interventionism in creating the social and economic crises in Central America, many firms in need of reliable low-skill labor still cannot find enough workers. It’s certainly not as if the same Republicans who spend like drunken sailors on military budget increases and tax cuts for the rich care about the (relatively minor) fiscal impact of social services for asylum seekers. No, Trump and his supporters are obsessed about this issue for one reason only: they want to Make America White Again, and to keep it that way at any cost.

Like most hostage takers, Trump didn’t actually want to pull the trigger on catastrophe. He was just counting on other parties surrendering for the greater good, like the real mother in the Judgment of Solomon, rather than see innocent people suffer at the hands of a sociopath.

Mexico does appear to have obliged in part—or so the president says. Trump tweeted the following:

“I am pleased to inform you that The United States of America has reached a signed agreement with Mexico. The Tariffs scheduled to be implemented by the U.S. on Monday, against Mexico, are hereby indefinitely suspended. Mexico, in turn, has agreed to take strong measures to….stem the tide of Migration through Mexico, and to our Southern Border. This is being done to greatly reduce, or eliminate, Illegal Immigration coming from Mexico and into the United States. Details of the agreement will be released shortly by the State Department.”

Of course, it’s unclear what the details are. Mexico seems to have made some vague and unspecific promises related to migrants and the border. It’s worth noting that none of the “deals” Trump has made on the international stage so far, whether with North Korea or anyone else, have come to fruition. World leaders consistently make promises to Trump when he starts yelling, then count on his short attention span wandering to something else. There’s no indication that Mexico will actually follow through on any of this, or that Mexico even can do much if it wanted to.

Moreover, if the hostage-taker only secures uncertain promises rather than tangible benefits, releasing the hostages amounts to backing down due to a weak position. Boasting aside, the reality of the situation is more likely that an increasingly weakened and unstable president is throwing in the towel rather than escalating to an untenable position.

Trump’s son and media allies are pretending it’s a huge win. Of course, for individuals with no moral compass hostage-taking can seem like an excellent short-term strategy. Responsible leaders will typically attempt to de-escalate situations with powerful individuals who play that game, and even temporarily appease them—or least appear to do so. But it comes at a terrible cost to the hostage taker: revulsion among decent people, isolation from allies, and a loss of peace and stability.

Trump’s “Art of the Deal” tactics with Mexico are no different from Kim Jong Un’s: threaten to blow up the world unless people give you what you want. North Korea’s reward for that is pariah status in a hermit kingdom. The only reason the world tolerates it temporarily from Trump is, aside from the large power quotient of the United States, most leaders are simply waiting Trump out—assuming a more responsible administration to follow. If Trump does win re-election, however, the international consequences of Trump’s behavior will begin to grow more dire as other nations freeze out and work to disadvantage the United States.

Finally, it’s worth noting that these hostage-taking tactics aren’t limited to Trump or his foreign policy. They are also increasingly the tactics of the Republican Party in budget negotiations and government shutdowns. The modern conservative movement has been practically nihilistic: if it can’t get the wildly unpopular and immoral policies it wants, it has no problem taking the whole country, indeed the whole world, down with it. Trump is just a symptom of this malaise, not its cause.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.