Cowards and Traders

Donald Trump’s defense of a disastrous trade war echoes George W. Bush.

George W. Bush standing in front of “Mission Accomplished” banner, and Donald Trump.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Stephen Jaffe/AFP/Getty Images, Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images.

President Trump says the Iraq war was a terrible blunder. “What a decision that was to go in,” he jeered Monday night at a rally in South Carolina. “It was the worst decision in the history of our country … $7 trillion and thousands of lives.” But in the same speech, Trump defended his own self-destructive war: a worldwide battle of tariffs.

Trade wars are different from real wars. The Iraq war cost hundreds of thousands of lives, while a trade war threatens only livelihoods. But Trump is rationalizing his war the same way President Bush rationalized his: by telling Americans that victory is guaranteed and every setback in the war is a challenge to their patriotic valor.

On Monday, Harley-Davidson announced that it was moving some of its production out of the United States. The company said it was doing so to avoid European tariffs, which were imposed on Friday in response to Trump’s tariffs on Europe. Trump told his South Carolina audience not to worry about such foreign countermeasures. “It’s all going to work out,” he promised, because other countries would drop their tariffs in the face of American economic power. On Tuesday morning, he accused Harley-Davidson of having “surrendered” to European pressure.

Bush used several arguments to justify the Iraq invasion. Some of them, later discredited, portrayed Iraq as a grave threat to the United States. But once the war was underway, his appeals focused on how the war was going. When things were going well, Bush said we were winning—“Mission Accomplished”—and should take pride in the success of our brave soldiers. When the war was going badly, Bush said we couldn’t afford to lose heart or doubt our leaders. He called Democrats “the party of cut and run.” He turned defeat into an argument against dissent.

Trump, likewise, has based his war on specious arguments. He claims that we have a trade deficit with Canada, when in fact we don’t. He claims that trade deficits are a kind of theft by our trading partners, when in reality those countries help our economy by buying what we’re selling. He claims that to protect our national security, we have to tax foreign steel and aluminum, even when it comes from allies that have fought alongside us in Iraq and other wars.

But Trump’s greatest homage to Bush is that he, too, is playing the patriotism card as the trade war sours. On March 22, Trump announced tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods. The stock market, anticipating a trade war, plunged. China announced countertariffs, and the war was on. On April 4, Trump’s chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, went on Fox News to praise Trump for firing “a shot across the bow” of the Chinese regime. Kudlow predicted “huge backing” from other countries, calling them the “trade coalition of the willing.” This was a reference to Bush’s “coalition of the willing,” the group of countries that supported the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

China’s countertariffs targeted pork and soybeans, shaking U.S. agricultural markets. Crop prices plummeted. Trump’s trade adviser, Peter Navarro, accused China of “responding to our legitimate defense with attacks on American farmers.” Trump issued a similar statement—“China has chosen to harm our farmers”—and threatened to tax another $100 billion of Chinese products.

Ben Sasse, a Republican senator from Nebraska, protested that the trade war was hurting American farmers. “The President has no actual plan to win,” said Sasse. “He’s threatening to light American agriculture on fire.” But the White House shrugged off the senator’s doubts. Navarro moralized the question, arguing that China’s countermeasures proved it was an enemy worth fighting. By choosing “to attack American farmers,” said Navarro, Beijing had issued “a wake-up call for Americans” and had vindicated Trump’s decision to reclassify China as a threat to our “economic prosperity and national defense.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a stalwart advocate of the Iraq war, defended Trump’s war with the same vigor and the same arguments. In an April 8 interview on ABC’s This Week, Graham was asked about the trade war’s damage to American farmers. “We’re trying to get China to act better. And if you get into a contest with China, you’re going to have to see this thing through,” said Graham. He continued:

The Chinese need us more than we need them, economically. And the only way you’ll get China to change is [by] mak[ing] them pay a price. And our farming communities [are] on the front lines, but we’ve got to stick with it … One of the ways [China] can fight back is to hit us in the agricultural sector. So there is no way for us to address China without absorbing some pain here.

The next day, Navarro escalated the war rhetoric. Trump “gave China every opportunity to negotiate an end to its unfair trade practices,” but “the Chinese have refused,” he wrote in the Financial Times. Trump would never surrender to China “attacking American farmers,” said Navarro, since “the president sits behind the Resolute desk.” At a Cabinet meeting that day, Trump repeated Graham’s arguments. By enduring the brunt of the Chinese attack, said Trump, American farmers were proving their courage and loyalty. “Our farmers are great patriots. These are great patriots. They understand that they’re doing this for the country,” said Trump.

The more Trump defends his war, the more he sounds like Bush. In an April 12 session at the White House, Trump assured farm-state governors and lawmakers that America “can’t lose a trade war,” because our adversaries would “run out of bullets.” He called farmers and their elected representatives “great patriots” who understood that they “may have to take a little bit of a hit” for the country. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue backed up the president, describing farmers as “soldiers in this battle” and “ ‘patriots’ first.”

In his weekly radio address the next day, Trump rallied the nation. He rejected “economic surrender” and pledged to stand up for “our way of life.” Two weeks later, at a rally in Michigan, Trump warned, “There may be a little pain for a little while. But ultimately for my farmers, I love my farmers. They’re great patriots … I call [them] patriots, because short-term, you may have to take some problems.”

In the weeks since, the trade war has gone up and down, with peace talks followed by more attacks. Last week, Trump hit China with penalties on another $50 billion in goods. China hit back, and Trump responded by slapping tariffs on another $200 billion worth of merchandise. On Friday, the European Union, responding to tariffs Trump had imposed on its members, imposed penalties on more than $3 billion worth of American products. Trump responded by promising a 20 percent tariff on all European cars.

When Harley-Davidson announced its production move, citing the EU’s countertariffs, Trump accused them of capitulating. “Surprised that Harley-Davidson, of all companies, would be the first to wave the White Flag,” he tweeted. On Tuesday, Trump blasted the company again: “If they move, watch, it will be the beginning of the end - they surrendered, they quit!” He assured Americans that his car tariffs would force Europe to negotiate an end to the trade war, “and it won’t take very long!”

Trade wars don’t directly kill people. But like real wars, they’re often unnecessary, expensive, and stupid. When an unnecessary war goes bad, and the costs pile up, the smart thing to do is pull out. The cynical thing to do is play the patriotism card, telling your citizens that their pain is heroic and that if they don’t stand with you, they’re traitors. The most cynical thing of all is to prosecute your stupid war, and play the patriotism card, while mocking your predecessor for doing the same.