President Trump is a man who judges his successes by anecdote — both real and embellished. But his trade war is turning the anecdotes against him, and there are growing signs of trouble, even as the war officially began Friday.
A poll conducted by The Washington Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University asked whether people felt Trump’s “taxes known as tariffs” against China were a good thing or a bad thing, in light of news that China retaliated with its own tariffs on U.S. goods. Fully 56 percent of voters thought the situation was bad for U.S. jobs.
The even bigger concern, though, was about the cost of products. About three-quarters of voters — 73 percent — worried about the trade war’s impact on them.
And that concern was even more pronounced in battleground House districts that will decide the 2018 election. In those districts, 78 percent said the trade war with China would be bad for the price of products. And even a solid majority of Republicans nationwide — 56 percent — shared this concern.
The numbers come about a week after we got the first major news about companies responding to tariffs, which have also been applied to Canada, Mexico and the European Union. So far, a major American nail company, Mid-Continent Nail of Missouri, laid off 60 employees and is facing its potential demise by the end of summer. Then came the more prominent case of Harley-Davidson, the motorcycle manufacturer that said it would move more of its production overseas in the face of the E.U.’s retaliatory tariffs. Now BMW and General Motors are warning about rising automobile prices, Volvo may cancel 4,000 expected new jobs in South Carolina, and polysilicon manufacturer REC Silicon announced it would lay off 100 people — all citing the tariffs.
It’s too early to say whether Trump’s decision to start trade wars with the E.U., China and our North American neighbors will ultimately wind up being successful. Such judgments are for economists to make months and years down the line. They also must account for the overall economy and the many factors that play into it. And a couple or a dozen companies shuttering plants, laying people off or shifting production, while painful for real people in real time, could ostensibly be the cost of creating jobs in other industries or creating a better trade balance, which is Trump’s stated goal.
This message actually appears to be coming through — at least for Trump’s base. While Republicans worry about the cost of products by a 56-37 margin, they notably think the trade war with China will actually be good for U.S. jobs, by a 64-29 margin.
But that immediate pain is also the point, politically. We have a president who from his earliest days as president-elect hailed companies bringing home jobs as a sign of his prowess and glowed as companies announced employee bonuses in light of the GOP’s tax cuts. However much credit Trump deserved for any of these events or however much difference those $1,000 bonuses made in people’s lives, Trump saw an opportunity to demonstrate real, tangible progress for real people.
He’s now experiencing the other side of that anecdotal coin. And now that the real and tangible isn’t looking so good, he’s lashing out. Trump has hit back at Harley Davidson for its announcement and even threatened to tax it. The message to other companies seems to be clear: Don’t tell people that my tariffs are to blame for your bad economic news. I will punish you.
Layer on top of all this the fact that Trump is applying his tariffs not to a struggling economy, but to one that has been on a solid trajectory for years — and recently saw the unemployment rate tick below 4 percent. Given we’re near what’s traditionally been regarded as full employment, and given the stock market has shown in recent months that corrections may be in store, moments like now aren’t a great time to rock the boat, politically speaking. Changing things up at this moment carries significantly more risk of reversing the current progress than potential credit for maintaining that progress.
And this and other polls, at the very least, suggest there is skepticism about Trump’s approach. That’s not to say it will be an electoral dud in November; it just means it’s probably an unnecessary risk — and one that is fraught for a president who so often judges himself by anecdote.