Don’t Go Searching for Strategy in Trump’s Tariffs

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As China and the U.S. dig in for what may become a protracted and possibly very painful trade war, a lot of time is being wasted trying to divine whether President Donald Trump has a strategy.

If we’re defining “strategy” as a cohesive, premeditated plan designed with clear goals in mind – goals that go beyond “gotcha!” – then no, the president doesn’t. “I’m going to teach China a lesson” isn’t a strategy. Slapping rounds of tariffs on Chinese imports is punitive, of course, and may ultimately convince the country’s leaders to open their markets and stop stealing intellectual property from the U.S. It’s unlikely to convince them to significantly reshape what has thus far proven to be a wildly successful, government-brokered industrial policy that has turned China into an economic powerhouse.

Meanwhile, Trump has been tweeting a series of bonkers and factually-challenged insights recently about what he thinks the impact of his tariffs will be and how U.S. consumers will respond to the likelihood of tariff-induced higher prices. None of this is knitted into a broader geopolitical argument about how best to deal with China on the world stage and challenge it militarily on the high seas and elsewhere.

Don’t expect most of that to change in a meaningful way. The president doesn’t have a sophisticated trade strategy any more than he has a thoughtful immigration strategy or a wily political strategy. What he has are resentments – resentments that are so deeply felt that much of Trump’s fuming can come across at times as the words and bile of someone who has been personally affronted. Trump’s fear and resentment of “the other” is profound and ubiquitous and speaks to sentiments he’s been harboring for much of his life.

Trump’s father Fred was a successful New York developer before a pair of government hearings in 1954 and 1966 revealed that he had been bilking taxpayers by overcharging the federal and New York State governments for construction costs relating to publicly-subsidized housing. Fred was booted from federal and state housing programs and essentially stopped being a major builder after that. Within the Trump family, the lesson drawn was not that Fred had transgressed and undermined his own business by being unethical. Instead, Trump and his siblings came to understand it as an example of an overreaching and meddlesome outside force – the government – reaching into the family business and taking away part of Fred’s livelihood. Trump’s view of government was forever shaped by those two episodes.

Trump’s own business philosophy also became marked by a heavy dose of paranoia. “I deal with the toughest, smartest people in the world,” he told a Washington Post interviewer in 1987. “If they think Donald Trump can be walked on, if they think Donald Trump is a rollover, like most people are, the litigation will increase tenfold. It’s very important in life to establish yourself not to be a patsy, and if you don’t, you don’t end up sitting in this chair.”

That same year, in an interview on CNN, he inveighed against Japan and its trade policies, noting that he believed that the country was getting the best of the U.S. and describing the problem in a way that was markedly similar to how he currently speaks about China.

“You don’t have free trade. We think of it as free trade but you right now don’t have free trade,” he said of Japan. “But they laugh at us. They’re laughing at this country and the way the country’s being managed.”

When Trump launched his presidential bid in 2015 he invoked images of immigrants pouring over the southern border as unwanted outsiders towing crime and drugs in their wake. He also campaigned on a promise to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, citing the trade agreement with several Asia-Pacific countries as “another massive international agreement that ties us up and binds us down.”

Once Trump became president, he pulled the plug on TPP without having a policy or approach in place designed to replace it. (A move that doesn’t sing “strategic” to me.) Trump gave the North American Free Trade Agreement an overhaul after becoming president, but that pact really changed in name only. The final agreement was a sop tossed to a president more interested in showing that he could tame unruly outsiders than engineer great policy overhauls.

Trump might have tried to strike new trade deals with Japan and Europe first so he could have isolated China in a later round of trade talks but that would have involved strategic thinking. Instead, he went to war. Part of his incentive for doing so comes from his longstanding belief that he harbors special insights into China.

"I've read hundreds of books about China over the decades," Trump said in “The Art of the Deal,” his nonfiction work of fiction. "I know the Chinese. I've made a lot of money with the Chinese. I understand the Chinese mind."

He’s not really sure about that though, and sometimes his insecurity is transparent. “China has total respect for Donald Trump and for Donald Trump's very, very large brain," Trump said last fall.

All of this presidential sharing is sort of interesting to observe but I wouldn’t put it in the “strategic” bucket. It may go in the “needs therapy” bucket. And this certainly goes in the “resentment” bucket (and echoes his thoughts about Japan from back in the 1980s): “China is laughing at us,” Trump told his White House aides nearly two summers ago, according to Axios. “Laughing.”

What remedy did he demand then to make the laughter go away? “'Tariffs. I want tariffs.”

Now Trump has his tariffs and his nascent trade war. While his advisers may be developing policy built on his impulses, don’t go searching for strategy in the president’s own actions. This, after all, is personal.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”

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