The battle over gun control is heating up after President
Trump endorsed the idea of red flag laws in the wake of two mass shootings last
weekend. Even though gun control inflames passions on both sides, another story
that is being all but ignored is far more likely to determine the outcome of
next year’s elections.
At the same time that Donald Trump was making his pitch for
new gun regulations, China
was launching new salvos in the trade war. On Monday, China allowed its
currency to devalue and simultaneously announced that it was halt purchases of
US agricultural products. China’s move confirms that a solution to the trade
dispute with China remains far off despite previous claims by the Trump
Administration that a deal was near.
President Trump has essentially been painted into a corner
on trade. If Trump doesn’t give in and make a deal with China, there is the
increasing chance of economic fallout from his trade policies. If he does make
a deal, he looks weak to his base.
While the debate over the trade war isn’t as sexy as the gun
control debate, it does have more far-reaching effects. While about 30
percent of Americans own a gun, virtually every American is affected by the
economy. For a president whose Electoral College victory was based on about
100,000 votes in strategic states, even a small deterioration in support could
One of the sectors of the economy hardest hit by the trade
war is agriculture. The Chinese, who are no doubt acutely aware of this fact as
well as the fact that rural white men form the core of Donald Trump’s base, specifically
targeted farmers in their most recent trade moves. While some polling shows that support for President Trump is still at high levels among farmers, the
tariff war may help to explain why Trump’s support is abnormally
low in traditionally red farm states such as Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota
The Rust Belt states that swung into the Republican column
in 2016 also seem to be swinging back the other way. This may be partly due to
the trade war as well. Manufacturing
jobs are still be added, as they have since 2010, but new job growth in the
sector has slowed since the onset of the trade war in the spring of 2018.
While gun rights is a hot button issue, it may impact the
election less than many would expect. Battle lines have been drawn on the Second
Amendment for decades with most Second Amendment supporters aligned with
Republicans. However, the red flag law proposed by Donald Trump has split the
Republican Party. FiveThirtyEight recently noted that majorities of Republican voters support red flag laws as
well as gun licensing and expanded background checks, but a large minority of
Republican is staunchly opposed to any new gun laws. With almost two-thirds
of voters in support of new gun controls in the wake of the recent spate of
mass shootings, it is questionable whether the pro-gun platform of the GOP will
attract many new voters unless Democrats overplay their hand.
On the other hand, the economy has long been rated as Donald
Trump’s strongest point. In July, Fox
News found that 52 percent approved of the president’s handling of the economy.
It was the only area in which Trump received majority approval. If the trade
wars sink the economy, Trump will have little to fall back on in his quest for
a second term.
But there are signs that the Trump Administration has underestimated
Chinese resolve. As China has resisted his demands, the president has upped the
ante by increasing tariffs repeatedly in the hopes that China can be pressured
into making a deal as Mexico did. The problem is not only that China is a much
larger economy than Mexico but that China is much more stable than our south-of-the-border
neighbor. Where the Mexican government is weak and at times barely seems to be
hanging on to control of the country, the China is an authoritarian police
state that is much less vulnerable to public opinion and anger.
Even after their moves from this week, there are several ways
that the Chinese could rachet up the pain for American businesses before the
election. In May, China threatened
to cut off the supply of rare earths, minerals used in the construction of many
smart devices and weapons, to the US. China also holds more
than $1 trillion in US debt. A rare earths embargo would wreak havoc on US
manufacturing while a Chinese decision to dump its US Treasuries would likely
trigger a panic in bond markets around the world.
So far, President Trump is standing resolute. Speaking Wednesday
in Dayton, the president
said, “Somebody had to do this with China because they are taking hundreds
of billions of dollars a year out of the United States and somebody had to make
Trump added, “And I think our country is doing very
Nevertheless, it looks as though the trade war may be a long
one if the president doesn’t back down. More news from this week showed that Chinese
exports actually increased in July despite the previous round of tariffs. China
is also shifting
its agriculture purchases to Russia while President Trump considers more
bailouts for American farmers.
While China has been damaged by the trade war, so has the
United States. Both countries may be heading for recessions due to the trade
tiff, but the Chinese government has an advantage in that they don’t have to
outlast the American economy, they only have to outlast Donald Trump.