In 2016, Donald Trump ran for president as the antiwar candidate. He called the invasion of Iraq reckless and self-destructive, and he claimed, falsely, that he had opposed it. He ridiculed Republicans who defended the war, and he promised to avoid unnecessary foreign conflicts.
Now Trump has launched a war of his own. It’s a trade war against China, our European allies, and any other country Trump resents. Like the Iraq war, the trade war is backfiring. And Trump is defending it with the same arguments he mocked as a candidate.
In 2002 and 2003, President George W. Bush sold the Iraq war by hyping Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, as a threat to U.S. security. As the war’s cost to America mounted, and as the body bags piled up, Bush assured Americans that the resistance in Iraq would soon collapse. America was winning, said Bush, because we were killing the bad guys. In his reelection campaign, Bush accused the war’s critics of trying to “cut and run.” To prove our patriotism, we had to suck it up and stand with the president.
In 2016, Trump savaged these arguments. He said Bush had lied about the Iraqi threat. “Fifteen years of wars in the Middle East,” Trump observed, had left a “path of destruction,” including “tremendous financial loss” to the United States. “And for what?” Trump asked. “It’s not like we had victory. It’s a mess.” Trump scorned Bush’s claim that Saddam had to be punished. It wasn’t America’s job to police the world, he said. “Unlike other candidates for the presidency, war and aggression will not be my first instinct,” Trump declared. Instead, he outlined a foreign policy of “caution and restraint,” and he promised to steer clear of conflicts unless “we have a plan for victory.”
In reality, Trump turned out to be no more restrained than President Barack Obama. Trump kept troops in Afghanistan, extended the war against ISIS in Syria, and provided logistical aid to the Saudi war in Yemen. But on trade, Trump has launched attacks everywhere. He has slapped tariffs on numerous countries and threatened others, including our allies. Last week, the president proudly said of his escalating tariffs on China, “This is a trade war that should have taken place a long time ago.”
Trump’s war, like Bush’s, isn’t going well. “Since January 2018, the United States has imposed tariffs on 11 percent of goods imported into the country,” says a report issued last week by the Congressional Budget Office. Some of these tariffs, the report notes, affect “nearly all U.S. trading partners.” In response, “retaliatory tariffs had been imposed on 7 percent of all goods exported by the United States.”
What have Trump’s tariffs accomplished? According to CBO’s analysis, they have “increased domestic prices,” “suppressed investment growth by raising the prices of investment goods,” and “probably weakened business investment in the United States,” since companies don’t know whether they’ll be able to move products in or out of the country. China’s retaliatory tariffs alone have slashed U.S. exports by $21 billion. But even without the retaliation, Americans are paying directly for Trump’s tariffs, thanks to higher prices. In a review of studies, CBO finds that “a larger share of the cost of the tariffs than previously estimated is passed along to U.S. importers.”
Altogether, CBO projects that the tariffs will shave about $65 billion off next year’s gross domestic product. They’ll “reduce average real household income by $580,” says the report. That’s your annual tax bill for Trump’s trade war.
Is Trump humbled by these results? Not a bit. Instead of backing down, he’s borrowing the excuses Bush used in Iraq. Trump swears the enemy is about to collapse. “We have all the cards,” he declared on Aug. 9, as he answered China’s latest countertariffs by imposing counter-countertariffs. The fight with China would be “fairly short,” the president assured Americans a week later. “The longer the trade war goes on, the weaker China gets, and the stronger we get,” he said. On Monday, he opined that the United States was “in a stronger position now” than ever.
In Iraq, Bush argued that America was winning because our losses weren’t as bad as the enemy’s. Trump makes a similar pitch. “We’re getting great results. China has had the worst year they’ve had in 27 years,” he told reporters last week. “We’re winning because they’re having the worst year they’ve had in decades.” Trump also boasted that Germany, the United Kingdom, and other European and Asian countries were “doing poorly.” To Trump, every loss for another country is a win for us. He’s oblivious to what the CBO tried to explain: that the damage he’s inflicting on our trade partners also hurts us by reducing demand for our products.
The more American service members suffered in Iraq, the more Bush praised their suffering. Trump, in a similar spirit, glorifies the pain his trade war has inflicted on consumers and on farmers who have lost their markets. Americans “may have to pay something, but they understand that,” Trump assured reporters on Aug. 15. “The farmers of this country really understand it.” A week later, he extolled his own heroism for jeopardizing America’s economy to confront the menace in Beijing. “Somebody had to take China on,” said Trump, “whether it’s good for our country or bad for our country short term.” If America had to “fall into a recession for two months,” he argued, that was worth the fight, because “we have no choice.”
Bush claimed, falsely, that the Iraq war was vital to U.S. national security. Trump, even more absurdly, makes the same case for his trade war. When Trump was asked last week about the domestic damage caused by his tariffs, he dismissed the question as “irrelevant,” arguing that China’s economy posed a “national security” threat. “They were taking all of that money that they were making from us, and they were building planes and ships and lots of other things,” said Trump. “We can’t let that happen.”
Like Bush, Trump smears skeptics of his war as cowards. He says Americans who want him to cut a trade deal with China “don’t have the guts” to fight on. He derides his Democratic challengers as “weak” because they might offer China friendlier terms. And, like Bush, Trump has a team of sycophants ready to exalt his courage. “He has got to defend the American economy,” Trump’s economic adviser Larry Kudlow proclaimed Sunday on Face the Nation.
Kudlow was followed on the program by Sen. Lindsey Graham, who repeated the same suck-it-up message he had previously offered in defense of the Iraq war. “We’re now at that part in the trade war where you’ll feel price increases at Walmart,” Graham told viewers, but “we’ve just got to accept the pain that comes with standing up to China.” In the long run, said Graham, “if Trump keeps piling on,” America would prevail, because we’ve “got more bullets than they do.”
Trump seems intent on escalating the war. On Aug. 15, he threatened China with “the ultimate form of retaliation. … There’s a long way I can go.” On Monday, the president suggested he might cut off trade entirely. If China didn’t meet his terms, he proposed, “Let’s not do business together.” Trump has also threatened the European Union, even while sitting next to European leaders. A week ago, as he departed for the G-7 meeting in France, he warned that if the French government didn’t ease up on American companies, “We’ll be taxing their wine like they’ve never seen before.”
Trump’s incessant belligerence is a warning. So is his use of the Bush rhetorical playbook. That playbook—glorifying sacrifice, appealing to patriotism, and calling opponents of the Iraq war weaklings and cowards—worked. It got Bush reelected, and it cowed his critics. The war went on for another seven years. Don’t fall for it again.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus