The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The perils of the Trump bubble

(Evan Vucci/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load


This morning, President Trump once again rage-tweeted about how China is taking advantage of us. This signals that Trump may well continue escalating what appears to be an imminent trade war.

Notably, there are increasing signs that this possibility is putting congressional Republicans and GOP candidates in a bind. But the reason for this is particularly significant, because it suggests grounds for pessimism about where the standoff with China is headed and the damage it could do.

In a good piece, The Post’s David Weigel reports that Republican candidates are grappling with how to respond to Trump’s escalating trade threats. They worry that China’s threat of retaliatory tariffs could hit agricultural communities hard. But they also worry about criticizing the president’s policy:

Trump’s aggressive attacks on China over trade are putting Republicans … in a difficult spot — torn between siding with Trump and acknowledging the economic peril to many of their constituents. The issue presents yet another challenge to the GOP in a tough midterm election year even in the rural areas across the Upper Midwest that swept Trump to victory — and where control of the Senate could be decided.

For instance, one GOP candidate for a House seat in a Minnesota district that produces a lot of soybean crop and hog products — both of which will get hit hard by Chinese tariffs — is walking a careful line. He acknowledges that a trade war could be very damaging to U.S. agricultural exports, but insists that Trump gets this and that it will all be okay in the end — he’s just striking a negotiating posture. Another GOP candidate — for Senate in Wisconsin — says that farmers might have to accept some “risk” right now, but don’t worry, because Trump’s real objective is “a world without tariffs.” How reassuring.

Columnist Eugene Robinson says President Trump's frenzied tweets about a "caravan" of migrants are really about his fear of losing his base. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Why the careful straddle? As Weigel reports, it’s because Republicans “risk alienating their base when criticizing the president.” In other words, Republicans feel constrained by Trump’s popularity with GOP base voters from being forthright about just how risky they themselves think Trump’s policies are to the people they seek to represent.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

We don’t yet know whether there will be a trade war. Perhaps one will be averted. Maybe Trump will force China to submit to his will on all his demands — that is, when he actually gets around to making specific demands.

But the point is, if a trade war does materialize, who is going to tell Trump the truth about the damage it is doing in a way that will punch through his bubble? Some congressional Republicans may do so, but many may feel constrained from going there, particularly if conservative media keep telling GOP voters that Trump is valiantly battling the Chinese menace on behalf of the American worker, and that China’s surrender is inevitable.

What about Trump’s own advisers? Well, that would be nice, but here’s what the Associated Press reports today:

Some aides, convinced that Trump puts more stock in what he sees on TV than in his own aides’ advice, regularly phone prominent commentators and news hosts to provide talking points on everything from tax policy to Syria in hopes of influencing Trump.

Indeed, it turns out that this is particularly true on tariffs. The Associated Press also reports that the Trump advisers who worried about his call for tariffs asked for more time to study the issue, in hopes that Trump’s zeal would wane. But Trump “blew up,” and the rest is history. It has already been reported that Trump decided to send the National Guard to the border amid his fear that failing to get his wall money humiliated him in the eyes of his base. The hardening of his nationalist line on trade likely comes from a similar place: His initial decision on tariffs came when he was “gunning for a fight” and “unglued” about other losses.

Trade is one area in which Trump’s crude understanding of the issue (it is all about a zero-sum struggle for dominance in which there are only winners and losers), is particularly destructive, given how nuanced and complicated it is. On Friday, the White House tried to reassure everybody by saying Trump is considering giving China a specific set of demands that could conceivably lead to reduced tensions. And indeed, China is perpetrating various unfair trade practices. But other countries have called for a multilateral response to them, something that is at odds with Trump’s worldview, which holds that international cooperation is a sucker’s game.

On “Fox News Sunday,” Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow claimed the administration is assembling such an international coalition. But under intense questioning from Fox’s Chris Wallace, it quickly became apparent that this is far from a reality. Regardless, once again we’re left wondering whether this adviser actually speaks for Trump. And if this approach — and more — goes off the rails, how many Republicans will take the grave risk of forcefully saying so?

* TRUMP’S TRADE WAR GIVES DEMOCRATS AN OPENING: Bloomberg reports on Sen. Joe Donnelly’s (D-Ind.) efforts to survive a reelection run in a state Trump carried by 19 points. Here’s what happened when Donnelly campaigned among “agitated” farmers:

It wasn’t Donnelly’s opposition to the GOP tax-cut that animated these voters in the Republican-dominated state. Instead, many of the more than two-dozen farmers gathered aired complaints about … Trump’s policies, primarily escalating trade tensions that threaten exports of pork and soybeans to China and corn sales to Canada and Mexico.

Donnelly says he supports the concept of tariffs but only in a “smart, targeted way.” Vowing to guard the economy against Trump’s recklessness may emerge as a key Democratic survival strategy.

* GOP POLLSTER: REPUBLICANS ARE ‘IN DEEP TROUBLE’: Republican pollster Frank Luntz sounds the alarm on Fox News:

“I think the Republicans are in deep trouble in the House and the Senate as well … If the election were held today, frankly, I think Republicans would lose both.”

Luntz insists Trump needs to refrain from attacking the media and only go after Democrats, rather than after the whole Congress, but we’re not sure that would do it.

* NO WHITE HOUSE PLAN FOR COMEY ONSLAUGHT: Fired former FBI director James B. Comey’s new book is out next week, and Politico reports that the White House hasn’t even bothered developing a plan to counter its revelations:

These officials said it’s understood within the West Wing that laying out an advance media strategy is largely a futile exercise since … Trump could blow up any prepared talking points with a single tweet. Instead, senior aides are hoping that Trump’s trip to South America and subsequent summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Mar-a-Lago will provide distraction, as well as an opportunity for the president to appear above the fray.

Distraction? Good luck with that! Something tells us that Trump will be rage-tweeting about the Comey book a lot.

* TRUMP’S FOCUS ON ‘BORDER SECURITY’ COULD HURT GOP: The Associated Press reports that Trump is prodding congressional Republicans to act on “border security,” and they aren’t too thrilled about it:

A senior administration official told reporters on a conference call … that border security could be among the biggest issues for Congress this spring and summer. That’s likely news to Republicans running for re-election, particularly in swing districts or with sizable minority populations, who have shown little interest in the kind of beefed-up border security the administration has proposed to turn back unaccompanied minors and clamp down on asylum seekers.

It bears repeating that Trump’s extreme anti-immigrant agenda is deeply unpopular. It may rev up the GOP base, but it is likely helping to deepen the GOP’s travails with suburban swing voters.

* RICK SCOTT ENTERS SENATE RACE: Today Florida Gov. Rick Scott will announce he’s running for Senate, setting up a brutal, high-stakes contest against Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson. Democrats have been hitting Scott for years over his tenure as CEO of a hospital that paid a huge fine for massive Medicare and Medicaid fraud.

Social Security Works is out with a statement blasting Scott’s history on Medicare, claiming he “has a long history of putting his own best interests” above the “best interests of seniors.” In this race, the clash of the two parties’ visions for Medicare will be front and center.

* ON THE RIGHT, A ‘MORAL COLLAPSE’: Paul Krugman puts the Atlantic’s firing of Kevin Williamson in its larger context by noting that conservative economics and the conservative intelligentsia have undergone what he calls “moral collapse”:

We saw that most recently in the way leading conservative economists raced to endorse ludicrous claims for the efficacy of the Trump tax cuts, then tried to climb down without admitting what they had done. … you don’t see the same thing on the other side. Liberal economists … have generally been willing to admit to and learn from mistakes … In this, as in so much else, we’re looking at asymmetric polarization.

As Krugman notes, the broader story here is that news organizations still haven’t figured out how to handle this basic imbalance.

* AND TRUMP’S OUTRAGE LOOP IS WORKING AGAINST HIM: A very shrewd point from E.J. Dionne Jr.:

Trump is a demagogue who relies on the angry energy of his supporters. But he finds himself in an untenable position: No matter how many hot buttons he pushes, he cannot arouse the passion he needs on his own side to counter the determination and engagement of those who loathe him. … Trump has failed to stir his base, but he has become, unintentionally, one of the most effective organizers of progressive activism and commitment in the country’s history.

At the center of this story are women, whose estrangement from Trump is one of the most important dynamics in our politics right now. And it will likely get worse.