In link­ing trade with im­mi­gra­tion, Trump may have united his op­po­nents

The Saline Courier - - OPINION -

This month, Pres­i­dent Don­ald J. Trump -- the great in­no­va­tor, the great in­sti­ga­tor, above all the great dis­rupter -- con­jured up a new tool of tu­mult: Take one highly in­cen­di­ary is­sue and employ it as a bat­ter­ing ram to win con­ces­sions on an even more con­tentious mat­ter.

By us­ing tar­iffs -- on an es­ca­lat­ing sched­ule that would have be­gun at 5% and threat­ened to grow to 25%

-- as a tool to pres­sure Mex­ico to re­duce im­mi­gra­tion at the south­ern bor­der, Trump did what no Amer­i­can chief ex­ec­u­tive has ever done.

But for all its cre­ativ­ity, the Mex­ico ini­tia­tive re­vealed great dan­gers in meld­ing two poli­cies in one episode, in part be­cause each of the poli­cies has stirred so much pas­sion that com­bin­ing them is in ef­fect what mil­i­tary ex­perts call a force mul­ti­plier, throw­ing to­gether op­po­nents of both. Repub­li­can se­na­tors from Iowa con­cerned about soy­bean ex­ports and Cal­i­for­nia im­mi­gra­tion ad­vo­cates wor­ried about hu­man rights are sel­dom if ever mo­bi­lized for a sin­gle fight. This time they were, and the tar­get was Trump.

The pres­i­dent was able to claim vic­tory in one sec­tor (im­mi­gra­tion) by mak­ing threats in an­other (trade), but the ploy re­vealed both po­lit­i­cal and prac­ti­cal weak­nesses.

“How­ever com­mend­able even the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s most ar­dent sup­port­ers might find the pres­i­dent’s goals,” Fred Kempe, the pres­i­dent of the At­lantic Coun­cil think tank, said in the wake of the Mex­ico an­nounce­ment, “the un­for­tu­nate truth is that tar­iffs are in­suf­fi­cient at best and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive at worst in achiev­ing non-trade out­comes.”

In the Mex­ico case, they were un­nec­es­sary rather than in­suf­fi­cient (much of the agree­ment had been ham­mered out months ear­lier) and per­haps were coun­ter­pro­duc­tive (mobilizing Trump’s op­po­nents in com­mon cause over un­com­mon is­sues).

Trump’s crit­ics com­plain that his com­port­ment marks him as com­mon; the cri­tiques from the coastal elites about his be­hav­ior and fash­ion choices dur­ing his re­cent Eu­ro­pean trip have only three prece­dents: the sneers of the es­tab­lished or­der about Abra­ham Lin­coln’s coun­tri­fied pro­file, the howls of won­der about Mamie and Dwight Eisen­hower’s Tv-din­ner life­style, and the con­tempt among the cap­i­tal es­tab­lish­ment for Lyn­don John­son’s “corn­pone” ways. But in truth, the pres­i­dent de­lights in the un­com­mon po­lit­i­cal ini­tia­tive.

Trump’s his­tor­i­cal legacy al­most cer­tainly will be less about his spe­cific pol­icy vic­to­ries -- other pres­i­dents, even Democrats, low­ered taxes, and other pres­i­dents, es­pe­cially Democrats, al­tered the com­po­si­tion of the Supreme Court for gen­er­a­tions -- and more about his role as a dis­rupter.

One of the prin­ci­pal dis­rup­tions -- con­sis­tent with Trump’s im­pulse to un­der­mine prece­dent as pres­i­dent, to re­ject po­lit­i­cal con­ven­tions and cus­toms, and to cast tra­di­tional po­lit­i­cal al­liances and al­le­giances into the rub­ble -- is to aban­don or to re­pu­di­ate the usual cal­cu­lus of Wash­ing­ton pol­i­tics. One po­ten­tial ef­fect is freighted with irony: Though the last three Repub­li­can pres­i­dents have been busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives -- from the tra­di­tion­ally con­ser­va­tive sec­tors of en­ergy, base­ball and real es­tate -- this pres­i­dent has in­cited far more op­po­si­tion from busi­ness than, say,

Bill Clin­ton, a lifelong politi­cian and youth­ful rebel on race and Viet­nam.

Just last week, the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce, for gen­er­a­tions the re­li­able ally of Repub­li­can po­lit­i­cal fig­ures, ex­pressed grave doubts over the pres­i­dent’s im­mi­gra­tion/tar­iff pol­icy, de­scrib­ing it as a $17 bil­lion tax hike for Amer­i­can busi­nesses and con­sumers that, if Trump’s threats took full form, could spike to $86 bil­lion. Neil Bradley, the cham­ber’s ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent and chief pol­icy of­fi­cer, de­scribed the Trump pol­icy as “ex­actly the wrong move.” By the mid­dle of the week, Trump and the cham­ber were in a bit­ter range war.

The cri­tique from the Busi­ness Roundtable, a group of CEOS from lead­ing cor­po­ra­tions, was even more blis­ter­ing, say­ing af­ter the pres­i­dent’s an­nounce­ment that the busi­ness lead­ers were “deeply con­cerned about us­ing the threat or im­po­si­tion of tar­iffs to press pol­icy changes with our neigh­bors and al­lies.”

Trump said last week that “coun­tries have changed their habits be­cause they know they’re next,” and he in essence dismissed these plaints as the bleats of a dy­ing, dis­cred­ited in­ter­est group, much the way the youth­ful Rep. John F. Kennedy, a Navy vet­eran of World War II, blis­tered the Amer­i­can Le­gion in 1949, say­ing the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s lead­er­ship “has not had a con­struc­tive thought for the ben­e­fit of this coun­try since 1918.” Four years later, with the pres­i­dency in view, he praised the Le­gion for hav­ing “com­piled an en­vi­able record.”

The Trump Mex­ico con­tretemps came when one­time im­mi­gra­tion and free-trade ad­vo­cates were ad­just­ing their think­ing. By com­bin­ing the two, Trump may have dis­rupted rather than ac­cel­er­ated the twin pro­cesses of re-eval­u­a­tion.

The free-trade move­ment in the United States once was part of the Amer­i­can con­sen­sus, which blamed the Smoot-haw­ley Tar­iff of 1930 in large mea­sure for the deep­en­ing of the Great De­pres­sion. The free­trade doc­trine was em­bed­ded in the GOP as Democrats, re­spond­ing to com­plaints from la­bor activists and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists about lax work con­di­tions and reg­u­la­tory stan­dards out­side Amer­i­can bor­ders, ex­pressed skep­ti­cism of trade agree­ments, in­clud­ing the new­est in­car­na­tion of NAFTA, which still faces sub­stan­tial con­gres­sional ob­sta­cles.

But as the im­mi­gra­tion cri­sis dom­i­nates Amer­i­can de­bate, and as trade is­sues re­tain their salience in U.S. pol­i­tics -- Trump swiftly tar­geted China with tar­iff threats the mo­ment the Mex­ico episode ended -- many in­ter­na­tion­al­ist im­pulses, em­braced by Demo­cratic pres­i­dents Clin­ton and Barack Obama against some op­po­si­tion from within their party, face fresh questions.

The think­ing, from the Trump coali­tion and from dis­si­dents on the left, many of them aligned with Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates Sen. Bernie San­ders of Ver­mont and Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren of Mas­sachusetts: The prin­ci­pal vic­tims of trade agree­ments pro­moted by the elites are the poor.

In the­ory, the thrust­ing to­gether of skep­tics from both par­ties had the po­ten­tial of pro­duc­ing a new al­liance to up­end the tra­di­tional align­ments of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. But in re­al­ity, Trump’s ef­fort to tie im­mi­gra­tion and trade in ways never be­fore con­tem­plated mo­bi­lized his op­po­nents more than his al­lies. •••

David M. Shrib­man is the for­mer ex­ec­u­tive edi­tor of the Pitts­burgh Post-gazette. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at Shrib­manpg.


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