On Tariffs, Trump Is a One Trick Pony 

The president views tariffs as a solution to everything. They're a solution to nothing. 


On a practical level, President Trump's newly announced tariffs against Turkey are doomed to fail. The tariffs, which Trump announced yesterday in response to Turkish aggression in Syria, put a stop to a trade deal in the works with the country, imposed sanctions on the country's national defense and energy sectors, and raised tariffs on Turkish steel to 50 percent. "I am fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey's economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path," Trump said as he announced the move. It was almost certainly an empty threat. 

Turkey's steel industry primarily exports nearer to home, not to the U.S. And to the extent that Turkey does export steel to America, the tariffs—like all of Trump's tariffs—will function as taxes paid by Americans, making them unlikely to have a meaningful impact on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's military decisions. The market reaction—relief—was telling. 

Trump's tariffs are the diplomatic equivalent of busywork. He wanted to look like he was doing something, not actually do something. His decision was practically the definition of ineffective foreign policy. 

Yet it's still telling that this—imposing steel tariffs—is what he chose to do. For Trump, tariffs are the key to to solving nearly every issue that presents itself. The rise of China as an economic power? Tariffs. Immigrants coming across the southern border? Tariffs. The federal budget deficit? Probably tariffs. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is kind of smug and annoying? Yes, still: Tariffs. 

Never mind that Trump and his pro-tariff advisers have repeatedly demonstrated that they have no earthly idea how international trade actually works. Never mind that tariffs have clearly hurt the U.S. economy and cost the very manufacturing jobs—including in steel manufacturing—that Trump says he wants to save. Never mind that Trump-style tariffs can presage global destabilization. Whatever the problem is, Trump is convinced that tariffs are the solution. 

This is precisely the opposite of true. Tariffs do not, and have not, accomplished Trump's goals. As Reason's Eric Boehm has written over and over and over and over again, the trade wars have been a failure on nearly every level. Far from increasing America's economic power, Trump's trade war with China has weakened the U.S. economy, particularly in areas that are key to his political support. Although Trump credited threats of tariffs for Mexican concessions, the deal announced this summer consisted mostly of actions that had already been taken. Federal debt and deficits have continued to soar. Justin Trudeau is still kind of annoying. Rather than a solution to everything, tariffs are a solution to nothing. 

So too will it be with Turkish steel: The tariffs will accomplish little or nothing except perhaps to further burden American consumers. There's a great slogan coined by Cato Institute scholar Scott Lincicome about how tariffs don't work: Tariffs not only impose immense economic costs but also fail to achieve their primary policy aims and foster political dysfunction along the way. You can get it on a shirt. Trump is proving that slogan right every single day. 

That Trump is relying on tariffs in this case is even more galling, since Turkey's invasion of Syria was a direct result of Trump's decision to re-shuffle (no, not withdraw) American troops in the middle east. These tariffs are a non-solution to a deadly problem that Trump helped exacerbate by pulling out American troops without warning, in the most chaotic way possible. As Bonnie Kristian of Defense Priorities wrote here last week, the "lack of advance warning to the Kurdish forces for whom Trump previously expressed strong support means more bloodshed is likely than we might have seen with a better-planned, full U.S. exit." Brutal wars in the Middle East are yet another problem that tariffs won't solve. 

But Trump is imposing tariffs here because they are the only response he knows. He's a one-trick pony, and it's a pretty stupid trick. 

NEXT: Can Elizabeth Warren Win Over Anyone Who Doesn't Already Agree With Her?

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  1. Well, Peter, what is your preferred means of getting a sovereign government to change its policies and actions?
    Bombs, or tariffs? Or lots of social media posts? What exactly?

    1. Hand wringing and pants shitting FTW!

    2. hat Trump is only ever able to think in terms of tariffs is one thing. That his fans can’t think beyond tariffs either just shows how far up his butt they are.

      1. What’s your solution, skippy?

    3. How about not? Why is it government’s business to tell other governments how to behave, as long as it doesn’t affect anything outside that country?

      Didn’t the Treaty of Westphalia say something along those lines 400 years ago?

      1. Á àß äẞç ãþÇđ âÞ¢Đæ ǎB€Ðëf ảhf, you are ENTIRELY too radical!!!

        What ARE you, a REAL libertarian?!?! I thought this forum belonged to knee-jerk conservatards, with a tiny sprinkling of socialists!?!??!

        1. Shut up Hihn, I’m talking to Hihn!

          Or something like that. I’ve lost track. I’m sure lolOLOLOLOLololol will be around soon to straighten me out.

    4. How about not impulsively manufacture one geopolitical crisis after another to begin with?

  2. Drumpf’s tariffs have literally destroyed the American economy. His Presidency has been just as disastrous as Paul Krugman predicted.

    The only question is whether Drumpf ruined the economy because of incompetence, or because Putin told him to. I suspect the latter.

  3. Markets imploding!!!!!!!!!

  4. Hey, that’s one-trick stallion to you.

  5. Hmm so today it’s taxes are bad again and war is good. What will our intrepid wokatarians advocate tomorrow? Will entitlement reform make a comeback? Will censorship go out of style? Process crimes are an unbridled good? Tune in and find out!

    1. Ken yee nae think of anything besides those two choices? What kind of sorry statist are you?

    2. No, only some taxes are bad. The ones we impose on goods from near slave states being especially egregious.

      1. You mean like Ohio?

        1. Does this mean we can finally start a real conversation about bombing ohio?

          1. Look having the Browns, Bengals and Cavs is punishment enough.

  6. 1. Orange Man Bad!

    2. Don’t read too much into it. Trump found a lever he could pull while claiming Executive authority: tariffs. He’s pulling that lever ’cause he’s the Great Negotiator and Deal-Maker foretold by the Prophecy. That’s what he knows how to do; that’s all.

  7. Trump is definitely not a one-trick pony. You haven’t seen him repudiate debt yet. I’ve heard he’s very good at that.

    And honestly, if he fucks over everybody so that nobody trusts the US government to ever again keep its word, well, how is that a bad thing? Why would you want people to trust the government?

    1. When did he promise the Kurds we would be their bodyguards for perpetuity?

      1. When did he promise the Kurds we would be their bodyguards for perpetuity?

        Earlier this year?

  8. Government solutions are always sledge hammers. Nothing government does is subtle or targeted (which is why it always amuses me that Keynesians think government could ever handle “targeted, timely, temporary” stimuli.)

    The difference between typical government sledge hammers and the tariff sledge hammer is …. nothing. Government lies about who will pay the tax, who will benefit, who will suffer, how much tax there will be, everything.

    Just another dumb government sledge hammer pushed by statist slavers.

    1. There are no keynesians, they are as mythical as the vanguard of the proletariat.

      1. We are all Keynesians. But if we are all Keynesians, none of us are.

  9. “The president views tariffs as a solution to everything. They’re a solution to nothing.”

    If they’re popular in the rust belt swing states he needs to carry in 2020, then they’re a solution to keeping him in the White House.

    The polls I’ve seen suggest that he remains popular in the states that were supposedly hit the hardest by the trade war.

    1. Oh come on! Correlation is not causation. Good grief.

      He’s popular because he beat Hillary and he’s not Lizzie, Bernie, or any of their pals.

      1. Exactly. And that’s enough.

      2. Are you being facetious, or do you really believe that Trump winning the rust belt swing states of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin causal relationship with Trump winning the election in 2016?

        If it’s the latter, I’m shaking my head.

        If it’s the former, I’m citing Poe’s law.

  10. So what does reason want to happen, armed escalation?

    1. Why not NOTHING?

      Why is it “our” business at all? Why must it be only a choice of tariffs or bombs?

      1. Pretty sure they were criticizing him last week for doing nothing. ENB and Boehm both took him to task for withdrawing from Syria. So now he does something and look who pops up to criticize him.

        1. Withdrawing from Syria and bragging about reducing troops overseas while actually adding 1800 is not doing nothing. No wonder you’re so easily confused!

          1. He added 1800 to Saudi Arabia not Syria. By a globe or Google it. Two seperate countries.

          2. That was really a non-sequitor remark. What does deploying troops to Saudi Arabia have to do with withdrawing troops from Syria and the criticism he has received for the latter? Fuck and you call me confused?

  11. But …. is the self-inflicted wound from the imposition of tariffs on Turkey more or less costly than perpetually maintaining a military presence in Syria? And, are the tariffs more damaging to the American economy, or the Turkish economy? And, is there a greater, more nuanced political goal on the horizon? What should Trump have done? How would Reason’s proposed solutions align with libertarian policies and principles?

    Reason would be better served, in my opinion, following these threads and proposing workable alternatives rather than incessantly whining that Trump is making errors and engaging in strategic blunders.

    //Trump’s tariffs are the diplomatic equivalent of busywork. He wanted to look like he was doing something, not actually do something. His decision was practically the definition of ineffective foreign policy.//

    Well, Mr. Suderman, what would you have done?

    1. The most likely explanation seems to me that Trump is worried about covering his backside with swing state rust belt voters–if and when Trump makes nice with Emperor Xi.

      Yeah, I lowered steel tariffs on China–but I raised them on Turkey!

      If hitting a country with steel tariffs is what’s needed in order to win the general election come 2020, I’m glad it’s a relatively insignificant importer like Turkey. I’ll take the tariff on less imports in exchange for getting rid of the tariff on more any day.

    2. I would pull our nukes out of Turkey and suspend military cooperation for starters. Use diplomatic pressure through allies, if we have any left. Isolate him any way you can. Push for a security council resolution. Maybe use covert methods to bolster his political opponents who might push for a coup. Continue to sell arms to the Kurdish troops.

      Thank the lord he didn’t tarrif Turkish brass. I love zildjian.

      Then get some popcorn and watch Erdogan drown in the giant mud pile he is creating.

      1. Javelin missiles. That is what the Kurds need. They can’t stop AirPower but the Russians will likely keep that at bay and the Syrians have some pretty tough air defenses.

        Tanks though, you need a good anti tank weapon for those.

        Talk the Saudis or someone into paying for it. They want our THADD and patriots and the soldiers to man them. Well, how about a few shekels so we can help out the Kurds.

        1. Are the nukes not in Romania now?
          I thought we moved them after that little coup a couple years ago.

          As for the Kurds, Russian/Syrian forces have moved into the void, are now entrenched in cities like Manbij and Kobani.
          Erdogan doesn’t want a real war, and can’t risk taking on the Russians (or Syrians). Turkey mainly wants to take away PKK bases, and put on a little show.
          US coverage of the situation is absolutely abysmal

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