Ever since President Trump launched a so-called trade war back in January, the expert political class has been in a tizzy.
Economists warned that U.S.-imposed tariffs aimed at Canada, China, and the European Union would devastate the economy and destroy millions of jobs. Politicians on the Left and the Right condemned the president; some congressional Republicans are threatening to limit the president’s future authority on trade policy. Pundits claimed (hoped?) the measures would most hurt Trump supporters in red states.
But Trump’s latest sucker punch to the expert political class follows a familiar pattern that Our Betters still haven’t figured out. They are the unwitting sparring partners in the president’s entertaining rope-a-dope. Trump makes a hasty, impetuous comment or policy announcement and various experts howl that it will fail and commiserate about the president’s stupidity. Pundits warn it will yield harsh political consequences. The public catches on to a problem it didn’t know existed. The president’s foes capitulate; public views it as a win. Expert political class loses again. (See “Trump will never get 3 percent economic growth” predictions as the most recent example.)
Europe Comes to the Table
Admittedly, it is too soon to say whether the United States will prevail in Trump’s hardline trade gambit, but he can already claim one victory: After referring to the European Union as a trading “foe”—and unleashing the usual chorus of naysayers—Trump issued a joint statement with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker pledging to resolve long-standing trade disputes.
“This is why we agreed today to work together toward zero tariffs, zero non-tariff barriers, and zero subsidies on non-auto industrial goods,” the statement reads. “We will also work to reduce barriers and increase trade in services, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, medical products, as well as soybeans. This will open markets for farmers and workers, increase investment, and lead to greater prosperity in both the United States and the European Union. It will also make trade fairer and more reciprocal.”
Score another one for—as expertise expert Tom Nichols calls them—“Trump and the Know-Nothings who support him.”
What most Americans didn’t realize until now is that there already is a trade war going on; our friends and allies are some of the combatants; and “free trade” doesn’t really exist, no matter how many times the neoconservatives say it does.
American Farmers Know the Score
Just ask any American farmer about China, a country now imposing tariffs on a number of American imports—including soybeans, cherries, and nuts—in response to Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods. “Everybody understands that China has been screwing us for years,” Rob Sharkey, an Illinois grain farmer and host on Sirius XM’s Rural Radio, told me this week. “The system will never be completely fair, but it has to better than it is. They’ve manipulated the markets and most of us are happy we have a president who will stand up and do that.” The United States now has a $375 billion deficit with China, the widest gap on record.
Sharkey said the sentiment among farmers on Trump’s trade offensive is split. “Half the guys are like, ‘Great, we got Trump, he’s going to tackle this.’ The other half, mostly older guys who lived through the Carter embargo years, are saying, ‘Oh no, here we go again.’ Everyone wants it fixed, but wants it fixed soon because we are already at break-even prices.”
Other farmers share a similar view. “The acknowledgment by the Trump administration that we’re withering out here in rural America is great,” my friend Amanda Zaluckyj, a corn and soybean farmer in Michigan, wrote this week. “But it was Trump’s tariffs and moves to reopen beneficial trade deals that exacerbated the problems we’re already experiencing.”
“We want a president to focus on opening up new markets, finding new customers, and giving us more opportunities,” Zaluckyj added. “We need to hold countries like China accountable for playing games, but we need to be smart about it.”
And the short-term financial relief aimed at farmers to mitigate any losses due to the retaliatory tariffs appears unwelcome.
“Farmers learn from an early age that the only way to make a living is through an honest day of hard work growing crops and selling them at a profit. Farmers do not want handouts and they do not want U.S. taxpayers to foot the bill just to keep us afloat,” Zaluckyj wrote.
If the U.S.-China trade conflict escalates over the next few months, it could impact Senate races in key states. Four of the top 10 soybean-producing states—Indiana, North Dakota, Ohio, and Missouri—have vulnerable incumbent Democratic senators. If Republicans have a shot at capturing those seats, the tariff battle cannot worsen.
Advancing American Interests in Europe
Trump’s bluntness with European leaders also might expose to the public the EU’s increasing hostility to American agriculture, particularly its alarming resistance to modern farming techniques. Environmentalists are running the show in the EU; their ideological soul mates such as French President Emmanuel Macron are easily capitulating to their unreasonable and harmful demands at the expense of U.S. agribusiness. The cultivation of genetically engineered crops, mainly developed by U.S. companies, is banned throughout Europe. Most countries require that any food produced with genetically-engineered ingredients, or GMOs, must be labeled. It is a subtle but direct rebuke of American-made products since most processed food made here contains GMOs.
Thanks to Macron’s help last year, the European Parliament nearly approved a ban on the sale and use of glyphosate, the world’s most widely-used weed killer known as Roundup, which is manufactured by St. Louis-based Monsanto. The Fortune 500 company is Public Enemy No. 1 in Europe. The European Parliament voted in 2017 to bar Monsanto from lobbying any of its members, and green activists staged a fake tribunal against the company at The Hague in 2016, accusing the company of “crimes against humanity.”
The EU’s antipathy toward modern agriculture unquestionably is aimed at the United States. New limits on chemical residues on agricultural imports could cost U.S. farmers more than $7 billion in lost business.
Last week, a European court ruled that crops derived via CRISPR, a truly miraculous gene-editing technology patented in the United States, would be treated as a classic GMO crop. This comes at a time when the Trump Administration is expediting the approval of more genetically modified crops and plants.
Perhaps this is an area that Trump could also address as negotiations with the EU progress. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) acknowledged that the EU’s acceptance of more U.S. soybeans is a positive sign since “they usually don’t like GMO products.” (Almost all of the soybeans grown here are from genetically engineered seed.)
So, no matter how inelegantly or impulsive Trump’s trade action might be, it is raising awareness about long-simmering and unresolved issues in international trade. And it’s already getting results. What will the experts say now?
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