Defining Winning Down

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, back when progressives were still allowed to talk about moral and political matters without complete deference to the current neo-Marxist orthodoxy, wrote of the decaying moral substance of modern America with the now-famous phrase, “defining deviancy down.” That useful expression is easily adaptable to other, analogous contexts, and today I would like to apply it to Trumpology, in which we may see daily examples of “defining winning down.”

It is truly remarkable how adept the average Trump idolater has become at the game of self-pretzelization. The issue of tariffs is merely one of several major policy matters on which the flock has had to “adjust” its perspective in order to remain duly supplicant, but it is one of the most amusing. Among other things, it reveals what a good showman Trump is, in the “sucker-born-every-minute” sense of the word.

For years, even generations, most of Trump’s followers were adamant free trade advocates. By that, I certainly do not mean that they really understood what a free market was, or what it meant in political terms. It is now fairly obvious that they did not. Nevertheless, they were, in deference to the official Republican Party line — and Trump’s proud band of anti-Deep-State rebels are nothing if not obedient servants of the Republican Party establishment — anti-protectionists.

When their god spoke of imposing tariffs during the 2016 presidential primaries, they laughed and said, “Trump knows how to tweak the media,” never imagining that he would actually, you know, do what he said. After all, they “reasoned,” he is a world-famous businessman, and therefore an economic genius and true lover of “capitalism” (which is the name people who don’t understand freedom apply to the free market); therefore, he would never do anything to disturb or undermine free trade. He is just using the tariff talk as a bargaining chip to move the silly little leaders of other nations who of course lack his deal-making prowess.

When President Trump began imposing real tariffs, and hefty ones, and not only on China, but on many, many U.S. allies and major trade partners, the dutifully self-contradictory sheep said, “He is just using these measures in a targeted, limited way as a short-term scare tactic to force other countries to renegotiate bad deals.”

When Trump defied their interpretation by declaring himself “Tariff Man,” repeatedly announcing his love for tariffs, and promising more and more of them as a permanent means of manipulating the economy to achieve his favored outcomes, the old kneejerk “capitalists” (aka advocates of economic freedom who don’t understand what freedom means) turned kneejerk protectionists. “Trump will force those bad guys to play fair!” they shouted obediently. Or, if they were among the minority of Trump-worshippers who still felt the need to preserve some trace of their former adult pride, they would merely say, “Let’s wait and see how it works out; I’m sure Trump knows what he’s doing.” Would they have said the same in defense of a protectionist Democrat, or even another tariff-mad Republican, for that matter? Of course not. The rules of logic, economics, and certainly tribal loyalty, all change, as needed and on a dime, for Trump and Trump alone — which, in effect, means for Mitch McConnell and the GOP establishment, but we’ll leave that wrinkle aside for now.

These days, as China stands its ground in the trade war, and Trump’s policies increasingly face tough analysis from critics on all sides, who have repeatedly shown that the tariffs are hurting Americans, contrary to all of Trump’s blather about who is “paying” for them, Trump, true to form, is showing signs of caving in.

First came his announcement, last week, that the American farmers who were supposedly not being hurt by the tariffs would receive massive relief from the federal government, i.e., subsidies to cover the losses they were allegedly not suffering, and that the farm products needlessly purchased with tax revenue (the subsidy) would be sent to poor nations as humanitarian aid.

And the flock? “Genius! We need to help our farmers, and this will show the Chinese that we mean business.”

And now, to change the optics portraying his tariffs (correctly) as a huge effective tax hike on Americans, Trump is suddenly announcing an end to the tariffs on steel and aluminum from Canada and Mexico, which in turn will re-open those foreign markets to American farm products.

“Ha!” the flock will now bleat, collectively. “I guess this proves that tariffs work after all, doesn’t it! Hail Lord Trump!” And if you ask, “Work for what, exactly?” they will answer, unthinkingly, “Better deals” — although they will not be able to define either word in that phrase.

Lifting these tariffs will bring relief to U.S. farmers, but it is only relief from the effects of Trump’s own policies. How is this a victory? This is what I meant when I referred to Trump’s showmanship skills. He is brilliant at conceding defeat with a ticker-tape parade and neon “Victory!” signs. His fans, true reality television addicts, buy it every time.

Yes, tariffs work. They work, that is, if their purpose is to twist Trump’s followers into positions so compromised and incoherent that literally anything may now be counted as “winning,” merely because Trump does it. They work if their aim is to turn the majority of Republican voters into economic protectionists and defenders of subsidies. They work if they were intended to make the free market a negligible concern in the minds of the very people who seemed, just a few years ago, to be America’s last line of defense for economic liberty.

Trump’s tariffs have been very effective indeed, if the standard of success is the standard of the Washington establishment, namely that any policy may be judged effective if it helps condition the American populace to forsake principle for pragmatism, freedom for force, and self-reliance for centralized control. 

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