Though political consistency is not a plague that has afflicted President Donald Trump too often, fairness demands an admission that on one major issue he has been remarkably constant since at least the 1980s: International trade.
As a sceptic of the concept of multilateral trade, his instincts have almost uniformly been in favour of tariffs, quotas, and various other protectionist tools. Whether such an unshaken belief in the usefulness of rusted tools to help the economy is an outgrowth of innate nativism or of the vaunted Ivy League business education that the president boasts of, I do not know for sure.
What is near certain, however, is that additional taxation on trade -- for tariffs are just taxes in a different garb -- is less of a panacea that it ever was … and it was hardly an unmitigated elixir even in the far less connected trading protocols of the 1980s and earlier.
The most recent proposal by the Trump administration to impose tariffs of 25% and 10% on imports of steel and aluminum respectively is ostensibly to protect the 50,000 or so American jobs that depend on local production of steel and aluminium.
And the number of American steel fabrication jobs that depend on economically imported varieties of these raw materials is about 10 times the number of American jobs that are based on the domestic production of the same.
And that doesn’t include the vast American automobile industry that the president also pledged to protect, or the construction industry that he desperately needs to implement his massive infrastructure plan for. Nor does it take into account the rise of consumer prices for most household and industrial appliances that would inevitably result from these tariffs.
To add insult to injury for a president who never shied away from billing himself a great friend of military spending, one of the first sectors to feel the pinch of the tariffs will be the defense production lines where foreign metal is a vital component of modern defense hardware.
Armaments production won’t be the only point in the national security scene that will be feeling the unsavoury side-effects of such tariffs: Considering that Canada is the number one foreign supplier of these metals, the impact on the US-Canada relationship could be substantial.
Few things shore up the white working class base of President’s Trump party more than nativist salvos of grim pronouncements on immigration, trade, or cultural diversity
American security ties with Canada are far deeper than meets the naked eye. Beyond the obvious NATO ties, the unseen cooperation between the two neighbours in terms of intelligence-sharing, terror fighting, and border management is wide and deep enough that it is taken for granted as a national security asset by both countries’ defense establishments.
Such national security cooperation is further tightened by the fact that there are very few, if any, critical supply chains for essential goods and services in either country that do not have multiple moving parts across the long shared border. Similar, though somewhat scaled down, relationships exist between the US, many European countries, and Australia, all of whom are exporters of either aluminium or steel to the US. The potential for damage to national security ties abroad and economic growth at home has to be obvious enough to a president who is quite smart.
Perhaps it is.
Where the damage to economic or national security standing is a potential, the necessity of these tariffs to his political calculations is immediate. Few things shore up the white working class base of President’s Trump party more than nativist salvos of grim pronouncements on immigration, trade, or cultural diversity.
Tribalism being the human instinct that it is, bread and butter for tomorrow can sometimes be overlooked in the zeal to “belong” today. If that zeal is further rewarded with temporarily protecting a few thousand jobs even while the costs of planes and missiles go up, so what?
Short-term and parochial gains is what the “tribunes of the people” have promised the masses since Roman times, civilization be damned.
And few modern-day politicians in the developed, democratic world today embody the rhetoric, resonance, and record of the ancient Roman tribuni plebis than the incumbent president of the United States of America.
Whether the counsel of his own staff, many of them very talented and commonsensical people, or the imploring of the few brave dissenting souls of his party in Congress sway him from this rash course remains to be seen.
And who knows, everyone may be surprised by the time the final tariff order comes out. But for now, Mr Trump is in full mode of the modern day populist messiah for his core supporters.
Esam Sohail is a college administrator and lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA.