The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s delusions are about to blow up in his own voters’ faces

(Carolyn Kaster/AP)
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With the exception of the big, beautiful wall that is already being built on the southern border (in President Trump’s mind, anyway), the issue that taps most directly into the most visceral strains of Trumpism is his escalating trade war with China. Given how often he preens about his “toughness” toward China before roaring, worshipful rally crowds, it’s hard to see how he’ll back down, no matter what the consequences.

Numbers provided to me by the Brookings Institution suggest that those consequences will most directly impact the counties that voted for Trump. Indeed, the numbers show that China has taken aggressive steps to sharpen its targeting of Trump counties in the latest round of retaliatory tariffs it just announced.

This morning, Politico reports on the backstory leading up to Trump’s trade war. Trump has been ranting for decades about other countries “ripping off” the United States on trade. Now that hostilities are escalating, Politico notes that Trump has “no clear exit strategy and no explicit plans to negotiate new rules of the road with China, leaving the global trade community and financial markets wracked with uncertainty.” But Trump loyalists say he’s playing a long game and won’t buckle. As Stephen K. Bannon puts it, Trump “has preached a confrontation with China for 30 years,” making this a “huge moment” that pits “Trump against all of Wall Street.”

On July 6, United States tariffs on $34 billion in Chinese imports took effect, firing the first shots in a trade war between the world's biggest economies. (Video: Reuters)

Despite this phony populist posturing about Trump targeting “Wall Street,” Trump counties are the ones most likely to take a hit. The Brookings Institution, which keeps detailed county-by-county data on employment by industry, looked at all the counties that have jobs in industries that China is targeting, and broke them out by counties that voted for Trump and Hillary Clinton. Brookings provided me with this table showing the results:

Nearly two-thirds of the jobs in industries targeted by China’s tariffs — a total of more than 1 million jobs — are in more than 2,100 counties that voted for Trump. By contrast, barely more than one-third of the jobs in China-targeted industries — just over half a million — are in the counties that voted for Clinton. (This is based on 2017 county/employment data.) This doesn’t mean those jobs will definitely be lost; it means that they are in industries that are getting caught up in Trump’s trade war, making them vulnerable, depending on what happens.

China’s retaliatory tariffs are mainly aimed at U.S. exports of agricultural and food products such as soybeans, cereal, seafood, meats, fruits and nuts, and dairy, as well as intermediate goods and transport equipment, including vehicles.

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Mark Muro, a senior fellow at Brookings who compiled this data, tells me that the jobs targeted by Chinese tariffs include well over 200,000 in poultry processing; nearly 140,000 in other animal slaughtering; over 120,000 in automobile manufacturing; and tens of thousands apiece in industries involving the manufacture of light trucks, utility vehicles and construction machinery, among others. As maps compiled by The Post show, many of these industries are concentrated in the Midwestern heartland and in the South.

The rub here, Muro tells me, is that China’s new retaliatory tariffs actually go further in targeting red counties than its previously threatened list did. “These tariffs will touch down in very specific places,” Muro said. “They appear calculated to have that effect. In its final iteration the list became significantly more rural and agricultural and red.”

It’s sometimes said that this trade war might have a negligible effect on the U.S. economy overall. But Muro points out to me that, by targeting industries that are particularly important in their geographic areas, the tariffs could have outsize impact in concentrated localities. “These counties rely pretty heavily on these industries,” Muro says. “Certain places could be hit quite hard.” Red places, to be precise.

As Paul Krugman points out, Trump’s trade escalation is built on a foundation of delusions: the idea that trade wars are easy to “win” or that the country with the largest trade surplus has secured some sort of conquering status; the refusal to grasp that disrupting complex international supply chains hurts people on all sides, including U.S. companies and workers; the lie that the United States is getting “ripped off” by punishingly high tariffs. We don’t know how far Trump’s trade war will go. But given how deeply entangled it has become with Trump’s own megalomania and with the simplistic, rage-addled vision he has nursed about international trade for decades, does anyone want to wager that Trump will find a way out anytime soon?

* CONSERVATIVES PRESS RED-STATE DEMOCRATS ON SCOTUS: ABC News reports that conservatives are preparing a massive ad campaign backing Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, with ads set to run in Indiana, North Dakota, West Virginia and Alabama:

Three of those states have something in common: competitive Senate races with sitting Democrats defending their seats in states the president carried. These “red state” Democrats up for reelection could swing the outcome if they back the nominee. They will continue to face tough political pressure to vote in favor of the pick.

They will also face intense pressure from the Democratic base, since it’s likely that if they cave, they’ll be backing a nominee who would overturn Roe v. Wade and gut Obamacare.

* TWO SCOTUS PICKS WHO WORRY MCCONNELL: The New York Times reports that Mitch McConnell has quietly expressed reservations about Trump picking either Brett Kavanaugh or Amy Coney Barrett:

Judge Kavanaugh once argued that President Bill Clinton could be impeached for lying to his staff and misleading the public, a broad definition of obstruction of justice that would be damaging to Mr. Trump if applied in the special counsel’s Russia investigation. … Judge Barrett, a former law clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia, has been championed by conservative Christian leaders, but Mr. McConnell fears she could cause the defection of two key Republican moderates in the Senate.

That last bit suggests Republican unity (which will be required to pass Trump’s nominee if all Democrats vote no) may not be guaranteed after all.

* DEMOCRATS WILL PRESSURE COLLINS AND MURKOWSKI: The Post reports on the thinking among Democrats over how to stop Trump’s pick:

Democrats hope to put pressure on Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to protect Roe. If neither senator breaks, Democrats still believe that they can drive down public support for the nominee by focusing on threats to abortion rights, gay rights, the Affordable Care Act and environmental regulations — even in Indiana, North Dakota and West Virginia.

Keeping Democrats united is a key way to intensify the spotlight on Collins and Murkowski, making a vote for someone who would overturn Roe more uncomfortable for them.

 * TRUMP’S PICK WILL BE DEEPLY CONSEQUENTIAL: CNN’s Stephen Collinson points out that the impact of this pick will go far beyond Roe v. Wade and Obamacare:

Trump’s pick will cement a 5-4 majority on the court for conservatives who could quite possibly dominate for a generation … The new justice could sway cases that define the role of religion in public life, determine the scope of gun rights, endorse a more restrictive interpretation of civil rights legislation and further loosen regulatory constraints on big business.

Yep, we have not even begun to glimpse the extent of the damage the Trump presidency will do.

* INSIDE TRUMP’S THINKING ABOUT SCOTUS: The Post also reports on why Trump may pass over Kavanaugh, who worked in George W. Bush’s White House:

Trump has privately and repeatedly questioned whether Kavanaugh’s work for the Bush family — a family whose members have deeply criticized the president and are pillars of the Republican establishment — could tarnish his brand or pose a problem for his core supporters. … One person who is close to Trump said the “Bush factor” could be the chief reason if Kavanaugh is passed over.

Because being associated with people who deeply criticized Trump is obviously disqualifying in a candidate for such a momentous and influential position.

* KEEP AN EYE ON TEXAS SENATE RACE: Politico does a deep dive into Beto O’Rourke’s long-shot campaign to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz:

Texas is already one of the most racially diverse states in the country, and its demographics are changing rapidly. Only 31 percent of Texans over the age of 65 are non-white, while more than two-thirds of Texans under the age of 19 are non-white, as are a majority of Texans aged 20-39. Those changes are driven by a growing Hispanic population, which tends to vote Democratic. In recent years, these trends have given Democrats reason to hope the state is on the brink of becoming competitive.

Little by little …

* AND TRUMP’S TRADE WAR COULD HURT U.S. EXPORTERS, TOO: The Wall Street Journal’s Greg Ip points out that Trump’s trade war, by taxing imports, could also deprive our trading partners of money to buy our exports, in addition to taxing those exports:

Though completely counterintuitive, theory and evidence show that taxes on imports act just like a tax on exports. Though it’s early, the Trump administration’s recent round of tariffs is already rippling out to exporters: Soybean farmers face plunging prices as China raises tariffs, Harley-Davidson will move production of motorcycles destined for the European Union out of the U.S., and BMW says foreign retaliation may hit exports from its South Carolina plant.

Who knew trade policy could be so complicated?