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Explaining Trump’s Bizarre Love Affair with Tariffs

What everyone misses in the trade debate.

Conventional wisdom has it that President Trump really only holds a single core belief: Trump is awesome. Pander to that, and you can get pretty much whatever you want on your political wishlist. Dare to question it? Well … good luck getting your press credentials back. No one would mistake him for a wonk, and the bulk of his policy views seem to have spontaneously germinated in just the last two years. Since the GOP gave him the flattery he craves, their views naturally became his. If he wasn’t a conservative before (does anyone really think he knew what a “textualist” was before 2016?), he is one now, more or less.

There’s one glaring exception: tariffs. He gladly embraces Party-line policies across the board, as if they were his own ideas all along, but in this one area, he bucks the conservative tradition and deflects criticism as if he doesn’t care what anybody thinks of him–which is … uncharacteristic.

What I think people miss here is, perhaps, a crucial key to understanding the man: tariffs are the only policy he actually really believes in.

That’s why he’ll stand his ground in the face of criticism from the Right. That’s why he’s so aggressive in pushing a policy no one is asking for. He’s acting in a manner that confounds all the usual psychoanalyses amongst the punditry–he’s acting on principle.

The primary, non-circumstantial evidence rests with his former chief strategist Steve Bannon’s openly, and repeatedly, stated agenda. In a now-infamous interview with The American Prospect last August, Bannon unequivocally argued:

To me, the economic war with China is everything. And we have to be maniacally focused on that.

Speaking to defrocked journalist Charlie Rose in September, the point was emphasized again:

Rose: I don’t know of a higher priority for you than going to economic war with China.

Bannon: Donald Trump, for 30 years, has singled out China as the biggest single problem we have on the world stage. The elites in the country have got us in a situation, we’re not at economic war with China, China is at economic war with us.

Rose: You want a trade war with China?

Bannon: I want China to stop appropriating our technology, but really forced technology transfer, is cutting out the beating heart of American innovation. [Editorial note: That would be a “Yes”.]

By all accounts, this “economic nationalism” (a.k.a., protectionism) is what impelled Bannon to latch onto Donald Trump as a candidate from the beginning. Whatever else The Donald might be–pro-choice, single-payer supporter, not much of a “reader”–he was a committed trade warrior.

Though the President’s historical lack of interest in high-level policy discourse might make this point counterintuitive, when you think about it, it’s not that surprising. Donald is not a politician, never has been. He’s a businessman. He does “deals”. From his point of view, the front lines of overseas trade, he sees things that seem unfair. Macroeconomics, shmacroeconomics–that guy at the other end of the conference table is charging me more than we can charge him. Not fair. In my opinion, it’s as simple that. What are the ripple-effect consequences on the GDP? Or for the end-consumer? That’s not where he lives. It’s not his experience. Punitive policies like tariffs make sense for the dealmaker, less so for the US economy as a whole.

For what it’s worth, I’m not suggesting it’s callous from where he stands. He just doesn’t understand that we’re a nation, not a boardroom.

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