Trump’s Reality-Distorting Rhetoric Can’t Hide His Trade War Disaster

Donald Trump’s unique brand of rhetoric weaves seamlessly between shocking ignorance and deliberate disinformation designed to make understanding or debating the truth next to impossible. Trump’s proudly held ignorance is closely related to his bigotry: he believes he has the best genes and the best instincts, so why would he need to learn or study? That would be for lesser mortals. As for the disinformation, Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent has rightly described it as a “total contempt for American democracy”; I call it a reality distortion field.

But there’s only so much a president can to do to convince his base of alternate realities when policies pursued out of stupid misunderstanding create real negative consequences for that base.

This is the case with Trump’s disastrous trade war. A new round of tariffs on an astonishing $112 billion worth of Chinese goods will be implemented at midnight tonight, raising costs for American consumers on most everyday household items and electronics. It’s equivalent to a significant tax increase on Americans, right at a time when the economy threatens to tilt into recession and when Trump is looking to implement yet another tax cut for the very rich.

These wide-ranging tariffs will broaden the pain of a trade war that is already severely impacting rural Americans and farmers:

Farmers are one of the most visible casualties of the U.S.-China trade war, which escalated sharply this week as both sides landed blows that could hold potentially devastating consequences for U.S. agriculture…

“My heart sunk a little bit” after China’s announcement, said Mary Kay Thatcher, a fifth-generation Iowa farmer and current farm lobbyist on Capitol Hill, in an interview with CNBC.

“That’s a hard hit for us, it’s going to make life difficult,” she said. “Farmers are still a bit stunned about the announcement that they’re not gonna buy anything.”

Farmers aren’t the only ones affected. Trump’s battle with China over trade deficits, alleged intellectual property theft and forced tech transfers has repeatedly spooked investors around the world. And polls show that his biggest moves in the trade war — namely, slapping tariffs on billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese goods — aren’t especially popular with the broader public.

But U.S. soybean, pork and dairy farmers in particular have seen their revenue from China evaporate as China scaled up its own tariffs on U.S. imports, now worth $110 billion.

The idea behind tariffs is that the pain of higher domestic prices on imported goods, and the potential loss of export business as a consequence of trade war, is worth the advantage of protecting domestic manufacturing and production. This is a debatable proposition in the modern global economy: it is increasingly difficult to disentangle modern global supply chains without significant damage to multiple economies, and with the rise of automation there is no guarantee that disincentivizing foreign manufacture will actually lead to domestic jobs for people rather than robots and algorithms. Furthermore, slapping tariffs on a specific country like China in many cases only serves to push companies to even lower-wage foreign competitors rather than bring manufacturing back home.

Still, that’s the argument. From a liberal perspective, targeted tariffs could be used in theory to encourage improvements in human rights, wages, and environmental protections while supporting domestic industry. But whatever benefits might accrue from such an approach would dissipate if tariffs are wielded stupidly and lead to escalating nationalist trade wars rather than implemented as part of an overall internationalist approach to expanding rights and protections.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, still doesn’t seem to understand what a tariff even is. For years he has talked about tariffs as if the country being targeted was literally paying taxes to the country implementing it, almost like a strange computer game simulation of 17th century imperial economics. His latest tweet today on Saturday on the subject only confirms this stunningly ignorant view:

Not only is he using the somber threat of an impending trade war escalation of his own making as an opportunity for a partisan attack, he is again acting as if China is paying the United States money when in reality the costs are being paid by American consumers. We are not “taking in $Billions.” We are paying billions, and in the bargain China is refusing to buy American farm goods, which in turn is bankrupting farmers. Saturday’s expanded round of tariffs will only make things worse, without a discernible benefit to American manufacturing either in the short or long term.

Trump can try to use reality-distorting rhetoric to shield himself politically from the consequences of his own policy ignorance. But the bill is coming due regardless.

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David Atkins

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.