The “But he’s OUR thug!” Defense of Trump on Tariffs

The idea that American manufacturing workers, the U.S. economy, or American citizens in general, stand to benefit from tariffs on imports from America’s major trading partners is so inherently ridiculous that apart from a few Russian trolls copy-and-paste internet commenters, no one but corporate schemers hoping for a short term bonanza on American steel investments is supporting Trump’s madness at face value.

There is, however, a healthy presence of Trump cult pretzel-twisting in the air, as the faithful seek to explain away the Orange God’s numbskullery by insisting that Trump is not really serious about imposing tariffs, but is merely using them as a threat to force the enemy — that is, to force America’s major allies and trading partners — to renegotiate “bad deals,” or some such thing.

That his supporters should actually reduce themselves to using such an argument to justify Trump’s economic and historical illiteracy shows just how terrible his policy really is; even his most ardent fans can only explain it by saying, in effect, “He doesn’t really mean it.”

But I think the problem runs deeper than that. For even if they were correct in their analysis of Trump’s motives — i.e., that tariffs are merely a useful threat to bend Canada and the EU to his will on trade — they would only be proving that Trump is without scruples or moral guideposts of any kind. In fact, I imagine many of his supporters would be quite sanguine with this outcome, as long as they could tell themselves their hero’s unscrupulous tactics were somehow being applied for their benefit, i.e., MAGA. But for those Americans who are not quite morally or intellectually prepared to tie their country’s fate to progressive thuggery — “But at least he’s our thug!” — the implications of this peculiar defense of Trump’s tariff policies are at least as bad as the implications of having elected an economic Bernie Sanders for president.

Warning a rival, particularly a friendly rival, that unless some priority of yours is met, you might be forced to resort to a course of action that could only be deeply harmful to everyone on both sides of the rivalry, is inherently irrational, equivalent to solving a dispute with your neighbor about property lines by threatening to set fire to both his house and your own. (And make no mistake: Those who defend Trump on the grounds that he doesn’t really mean this tariff threat are acknowledging my premise that tariffs are harmful to everyone; that, after all, is why they feel the need to reject Ockham’s razor in order to rescue Trump from “meaning it.”)

And what is much worse, these defenders of irrational thuggery from their president are deliberately overlooking the more damning and obvious point, namely that Trump is not merely threatening to do an intrinsically stupid thing — he has actually done it. That is, he has ordered the imposition of tariffs — it is policy now — and sent his Commerce Secretary (and steel industry profiteer) out to make the case for it yet again. In other words, their defense of Trump is not merely equivalent to praising him for threatening to set both his own and his neighbor’s house on fire, but rather to praising him for actually pouring the kerosene and throwing in a match.

If forcing trade renegotiations through such threats of mutual assured economic destruction were really Trump’s motive here, then this tactic would already make him a thug of Putinesque proportions. But what are we to say of a president who simply leaps in and imposes tariffs likely to harm his own fellow citizens as much as any other nation’s, if in fact his motive were merely to fire a warning shot? For the shot he actually fired was aimed directly at real human beings — Americans and internationals — people with families to support, debts to repay, futures to build, children to raise. If we are to judge a man by his actions, then if this “defense” of his motives were correct, we would have to conclude that Trump simply did not care that this particular action would cause direct and measurable harm to people’s lives, including of course the lives of his own voters. (Again, this is assuming the premise tacitly acknowledged by his defenders, namely that he is not “really” in favor of tariffs, i.e., that after all, nobody is that stupid.)

So which is it? Is Trump an economic idiot, unwittingly embarking on a course calibrated to Make America Smoot-Hawley Again? Or is he an amoral demagogue willingly risking the well-being of his fellow Americans and the economic stability of the “free world” in order to score petty “MAGA” points for his legacy as the greatest reality TV president?

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