This month, President Donald J. Trump — the great innovator, the great instigator, above all the great disrupter — conjured up a new tool of tumult: Take one highly incendiary issue and employ it as a battering ram to win concessions on an even more contentious matter.
By using tariffs — on an escalating schedule that would have begun at 5% and threatened to grow to 25% — as a tool to pressure Mexico to reduce immigration at the southern border, Trump did what no American chief executive has ever done.
But for all its creativity, the Mexico initiative revealed great dangers in melding two policies in one episode, in part because each of the policies has stirred so much passion that combining them is in effect what military experts call a force multiplier, throwing together opponents of both. Republican senators from Iowa concerned about soybean exports and California immigration advocates worried about human rights are seldom if ever mobilized for a single fight. This time they were, and the target was Trump.
The president was able to claim victory in one sector (immigration) by making threats in another (trade), but the ploy revealed both political and practical weaknesses.
“However commendable even the Trump administration’s most ardent supporters might find the president’s goals,” Fred Kempe, the president of the Atlantic Council think tank, said in the wake of the Mexico announcement, “the unfortunate truth is that tariffs are insufficient at best and counterproductive at worst in achieving non-trade outcomes.”
In the Mexico case, they were unnecessary rather than insufficient (much of the agreement had been hammered out months earlier) and perhaps were counterproductive (mobilizing Trump’s opponents in common cause over uncommon issues).
Trump’s critics complain that his comportment marks him as common; the critiques from the coastal elites about his behavior and fashion choices during his recent European trip have only three precedents: the sneers of the established order about Abraham Lincoln’s countrified profile, the howls of wonder about Mamie and Dwight Eisenhower’s TV-dinner lifestyle, and the contempt among the capital establishment for Lyndon Johnson’s “cornpone” ways. But in truth, the president delights in the uncommon political initiative.
Trump’s historical legacy almost certainly will be less about his specific policy victories — other presidents, even Democrats, lowered taxes, and other presidents, especially Democrats, altered the composition of the Supreme Court for generations — and more about his role as a disrupter.
One of the principal disruptions — consistent with Trump’s impulse to undermine precedent as president, to reject political conventions and customs, and to cast traditional political alliances and allegiances into the rubble — is to abandon or to repudiate the usual calculus of Washington politics. One potential effect is freighted with irony: Though the last three Republican presidents have been business executives — from the traditionally conservative sectors of energy, baseball and real estate — this president has incited far more opposition from business than, say, Bill Clinton, a lifelong politician and youthful rebel on race and Vietnam.
Just last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for generations the reliable ally of Republican political figures, expressed grave doubts over the president’s immigration/tariff policy, describing it as a $17 billion tax hike for American businesses and consumers that, if Trump’s threats took full form, could spike to $86 billion. Neil Bradley, the chamber’s executive vice president and chief policy officer, described the Trump policy as “exactly the wrong move.” By the middle of the week, Trump and the chamber were in a bitter range war.
The critique from the Business Roundtable, a group of CEOs from leading corporations, was even more blistering, saying after the president’s announcement that the business leaders were “deeply concerned about using the threat or imposition of tariffs to press policy changes with our neighbors and allies.”
Trump said last week that “countries have changed their habits because they know they’re next,” and he in essence dismissed these plaints as the bleats of a dying, discredited interest group, much the way the youthful Rep. John F. Kennedy, a Navy veteran of World War II, blistered the American Legion in 1949, saying the organization’s leadership “has not had a constructive thought for the benefit of this country since 1918.” Four years later, with the presidency in view, he praised the Legion for having “compiled an enviable record.”
The Trump Mexico contretemps came when onetime immigration and free-trade advocates were adjusting their thinking. By combining the two, Trump may have disrupted rather than accelerated the twin processes of re-evaluation.
The free-trade movement in the United States once was part of the American consensus, which blamed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 in large measure for the deepening of the Great Depression. The free-trade doctrine was embedded in the GOP as Democrats, responding to complaints from labor activists and environmentalists about lax work conditions and regulatory standards outside American borders, expressed skepticism of trade agreements, including the newest incarnation of NAFTA, which still faces substantial congressional obstacles.
But as the immigration crisis dominates American debate, and as trade issues retain their salience in U.S. politics — Trump swiftly targeted China with tariff threats the moment the Mexico episode ended — many internationalist impulses, embraced by Democratic presidents Clinton and Barack Obama against some opposition from within their party, face fresh questions.
The thinking, from the Trump coalition and from dissidents on the left, many of them aligned with Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts: The principal victims of trade agreements promoted by the elites are the poor.
In theory, the thrusting together of skeptics from both parties had the potential of producing a new alliance to upend the traditional alignments of American politics. But in reality, Trump’s effort to tie immigration and trade in ways never before contemplated mobilized his opponents more than his allies.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.