The thing to keep in mind about President Trump, as he thrashes around like a weak swimmer in a strong current, is that he has no idea what he’s doing. None. Not a clue.
I know that he can be clever politically, in a tactical sense. I know that his lies are often both deliberate and effective. I know that his utter shamelessness can sometimes come off as some kind of warped genius. But the only thing that’s profound about Trump is the truly spectacular depth of his ignorance. As evidence, take a glance — if you dare — at your 401(k).
The president’s decision last week to unilaterally boost tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese imports produced an entirely predictable response — retaliatory tariffs from Beijing on $60 billion worth of U.S. products, a freakout by the financial markets and a screaming plunge in the Dow and other major indexes.
The administration’s trade talks with China had reportedly been going well and were supposed to be nearing an end. Trump accused the Chinese of trying to renege on concessions at the last minute, but the president’s history suggests otherwise. Veterans of the high-stakes world of New York real estate have told me about what they described as Trump’s standard negotiating practice — pitching some kind of fit at the very last minute, when the other party thought things were settled, in hopes of bullying his way to a better deal.
That might work with a subcontractor who doesn’t have the power to say no, or even with a fellow developer who vows on the spot never to do business with Trump again. But would any skilled negotiator think such a stunt would work with China, the world’s second-greatest economic power? Wouldn’t the Chinese government have to react in kind, if only as a matter of sovereign pride? And wouldn’t startled investors conclude that their fear of a serious trade war — the kind with no winners, only losers — had been realized?
I assume Trump realizes that China isn’t really “paying” the tariffs and that the cost is in fact borne by U.S. consumers, who will pay higher prices for made-in-China goods. Either the president constantly lies about this on his Twitter feed, hoping to fool the gullible, or he’s even more clueless about trade than I imagined.