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Opinion Don’t believe the spin: Trump still hates free trade

President Trump. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

If there is one constant in President Trump’s worldview, going back decades, it is his opposition to free trade. As noted by Andrew C. McKevitt in The Post’s Made by History section, in 1988 Trump was complaining that one of our trade partners was “beating the hell out of this country” and “ripping us off like no one has ever ripped us off before.” His solution was a 20 percent tariff. “I’m not afraid of a trade war,” he said.

Trump’s beliefs haven’t changed, even if his targets have. In the 1980s, he was exercised about Japan. Today, he’s worked up about China, Europe, Mexico, even Canada. The other big change, of course, is that he now has the power to act on his beliefs.

Trump has launched the biggest trade war since the 1930s — remember how that turned out? — and the victims are piling up. Rather than back off, he is threatening still more tariffs and spending $12 billion to subsidize farmers hurt by the fallout. Trump exemplifies President Ronald Reagan’s quip about the government: “If it moves, tax it” (tariffs are taxes), and “if it stops moving, subsidize it.”

Tariffs are the greatest!” Trump recently enthused. “Remember, we are the ‘piggy bank’ that’s being robbed.” How this squares with his oft-repeated boast that “the economy of the United States is stronger than ever before” is anyone’s guess; logic has never been his strong suit. Trump thinks that trade is inherently a rip-off. He doesn’t seem to understand that we don’t just give foreigners money for nothing; we get computers and cars in return.

“If we didn’t trade, we’d save a hell of a lot of money,” Trump said last week. Actually, if we didn’t trade, we’d be living in a pre-capitalist, subsistence economy with levels of poverty that would make Liberia seem like Luxembourg by comparison. 

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But Trump’s worldview is at least consistent, right? Not so fast. Since June, he has been asserting, in between paeans to protectionism, that he is actually a free-trader. On July 24, he suggested that “both the U.S. and the E.U. drop all Tariffs, Barriers and Subsidies! That would finally be called Free Market and Fair Trade! Hope they do it, we are ready — but they won’t!” This has led some to claim that Trump’s trade wars are a brilliant strategy to achieve a free-market nirvana.

Sorry, I’m not buying it. If Trump were actually interested in free trade, he wouldn’t have exited the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), threatened to destroy the North American Free Trade Agreement or discontinued negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Given his irrational fear of trade deficits, Trump could not live with the possibility that lowering barriers would increase the trade deficit, as U.S. consumers might prefer foreign products. 

Trump is agitated about the 10 percent tariff that the European Union charges on imported cars and trucks compared with the 2.5 percent U.S. tariff on imported passenger cars. But there is no reason to expect that he would be willing to eliminate the 25 percent U.S. tariff on light trucks and sport-utility vehicles. The Detroit automakers are dependent on those vehicles: By 2022, they are expected to account for 84 percent of sales at General Motors, 90 percent at Ford and 97 percent at Fiat Chrysler. Drop the tariffs, and the U.S. auto industry might suffer. You might even see more Volkswagen vans on the streets, as there were before the tariffs went up in 1963. Trump would see that as akin to a military defeat to his self-proclaimed “foe” the European Union. And there’s no chance that the president would risk an electoral wipeout in farm states by eliminating agricultural subsidies, even if Congress agreed — which it wouldn’t.

So if Trump isn’t actually a born-again free-trader, why does he occasionally sound like one? For the same reason he sometimes voices support for gun control (“Take the guns first, go through due process second”) or comprehensive immigration reform (“Yeah, I would like to do that”). He loves to tell people what they want to hear. If he’s talking to Democrats, he will tell them he’s pro-gun control. If he’s talking to Europeans, he will tell them he’s pro-trade. He doesn’t mean it. 

Trump’s faux positions camouflage his true intentions. For instance, he harps on the need to increase defense spending in Europe not because he wants to strengthen NATO but because he wants to weaken it, and he knows the Europeans can’t meet his demands for spending 4 percent of gross domestic product on defense. (Even the United States doesn’t spend that much.) Now he is posturing as a free-trader because he knows the E.U. “won’t!” eliminate “all Tariffs, Barriers and Subsidies.” It’s simply a ploy to shift the blame for a trade war that he started. At the risk of stating the obvious: If Trump really wanted lower tariffs, he would be lowering, not raising, them.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Will Trump’s splendid little trade war live in infamy?

The Post’s View: Trump’s proposed ‘chicken tax’ on auto imports is a very bad idea

Catherine Rampell: Trump’s tariffs are already backfiring

Charles Lane: Trump should be careful: Tariffs stick around

Marc A. Thiessen: Trump is using tariffs to advance a radical free-trade agenda