Rough Trade

The president’s rhetoric will make a trade war even worse.

Surrounded by applauding steel and aluminum workers, President Donald Trump holds up the proclamation he signed.
Surrounded by applauding steel and aluminum workers, President Donald Trump holds up the Section 232 Proclamations on steel imports that he signed in Roosevelt Room the the White House on Thursday. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Donald Trump goes out of his way to insult and antagonize people. For his adversaries, this can be infuriating. But for his political allies and his fellow Americans, it’s exasperating. Trump cripples his party legislatively by alienating key lawmakers. He drives election turnout against Republican candidates. And he’s turning the world against the United States.

On Thursday, Trump announced tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. In some ways, the tariffs resemble those imposed by President George W. Bush in 2002. There are technical differences between the two cases, but the most consequential difference might turn out to be Trump’s abrasiveness. His open enthusiasm for a trade war, combined with his explicit disdain for military allies, undermines the legal rationale for the tariffs. It challenges other countries to retaliate, and it compounds the damage to America’s relationships and power.

Trump loves to gloat, pick fights, and humiliate others. In just the past week, he has gratuitously insulted Democrats, the Oscars, and his four predecessors by name. He has taken credit for the Olympics, Swedish prosperity, and solving the conflict over Jerusalem. He has heaped contempt on the Palestinians (they’re “wanting to come back to the table very badly”), the press (“being mocked all over the world”), and everyone who works for him (“I still have some people that I want to change,” “I have a choice of anybody”).

Meanwhile, European leaders, alarmed by the tariff plan, have bent over backward to be nice. Visiting the White House on Tuesday, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven ducked questions about a trade war. “Friends differ from time to time,” said Löfven, but “it’s important for us to try to find a way to cooperate.” At a news conference on Wednesday, European Union trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström called the United States “our friend and ally” and cautioned that “a trade war has no winners.” “We have no intention of escalating,” said Malmström. She promised that the EU would “do everything that we can to try to offer a dialogue.”

Trump, true to form, has done everything possible to provoke a fight. Standing next to Löfven, he claimed that “the European Union has not treated us well” and has “taken advantage” of the United States. On Monday, in an appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump said the United States “has been ripped off by virtually every country in the world, whether it’s friend or enemy.” Trump blamed U.S. budget deficits on military aid to our allies. He groused that NATO “helps Europe a lot more than it helps us.” Announcing his tariffs on Thursday, he hurled sarcasm: “Many of the countries that treat us the worst on trade, and on military, are our ‘allies,’ as they like to call them.”

Trump openly advocates a trade war. A week ago, he tweeted that given our trade deficits, “trade wars are good, and easy to win.” By cutting off trade, he predicted, “We win big. It’s easy!” He dared the EU to retaliate against American tariffs, vowing, “We will simply apply a Tax on their Cars.” On Tuesday, standing beside Löfven, Trump warned Europe that he would match any retaliation with “a big tax of 25 percent on their cars. And, believe me, they won’t be doing it very long.” Trump repeated that “trade wars aren’t so bad” because “the trade war hurts them; it doesn’t hurt us.”

Trump is wrong. Trade wars do hurt us. That’s why Bush, having stripped the United States of 200,000 jobs through collateral damage from his own tariffs (in effect, he raised the cost of goods made here), withdrew the tariffs in 2003 in the face of $2 billion in countertariffs authorized by the World Trade Organization. At the time, America’s trade partners didn’t even have to use the approved sanctions. This time, they’re threatening to retaliate right away. And Trump is baiting them to do so.

Even if our trade partners don’t rise to the bait, they can act against us through the WTO. Trump thinks he can bypass the WTO by asserting that his tariffs are necessary to protect national security. That’s laughable. He’s applying the tariffs to NATO allies. He’s also using the tariffs as leverage against Canada and Mexico, to get a NAFTA deal that, in his words, will be “fair for our workers and fair for our farmers.” That’s a patently economic and political, not military, concern. In his press conference with Löfven, Trump predicted that Republicans would “do very well on the ’18 election,” because “our jobs are being protected, finally, like with what we’re doing with the tariffs.” He brags about putting tariffs on washing machines, hardly an instrument of national defense.

On Wednesday, Malmström made clear that the EU is ready to file a WTO case and discredit Trump’s national security excuse. Trump’s needlessly aggressive rhetoric (“trade wars are good”) and his open disregard for alliances (claiming that we’re “ripped off by virtually every country in the world, whether it’s friend or enemy”) could be part of the case. And the WTO’s adjudicators aren’t angels. They come from all over the world, including continents and countries Trump has directly insulted. Did I mention that Trump frequently insults the WTO directly? He did it again this week.

If our trade partners don’t take their case to the WTO—or don’t win the case, because the WTO declines to second-guess a national-security claim—the ill will Trump has cultivated will hurt us even more. In a world ungoverned by an effective global institution, our power to rein in Chinese dumping, commercial espionage, and intellectual property theft would depend on cooperation from trade partners. Instead of courting them, we’re attacking them. From Brazil to Europe to South Korea, governments are dismayed by Trump’s assault. Japan, Australia, Canada, and eight other countries just signed a trans-Pacific trade agreement without us. There’s talk that China, not the United States, might join the deal.

Trump doesn’t seem to care. “I like conflict,” he joyfully observed on Tuesday when a reporter asked about turmoil in his Cabinet. “I like watching it, I like seeing it.” That’s one reason why so many people dislike our president. But he’s still our president, and that’s what hurts us most. He’s tearing down our country. He’s tearing down our world.