By Paul Waldman of the Washington Post
"It's the way I negotiate. It's done very well for me over the years, and it's doing even better for the country."
That was President Trump, speaking at a Monday news conference at the Group of Seven summit in France.
He was talking about the fact that in recent days he has vacillated back and forth between praising China and harshly criticising it, all while claiming that the trade war he initiated is going great for the United States as evidence mounts that it is pushing us toward recession.
The truth, however, is that there has seldom been clearer proof that Trump is in fact the world's worst negotiator. And the price Americans are paying for his weakness keeps getting higher.
While trade is one of only two policy issues (immigration is the other) that Trump has shown he has sincerely felt opinions about, he labours under a series of misconceptions, bred by ignorance and what appears to be a complete lack of interest in grasping how the trade war appears from China's perspective.
Which is of course the basis of smart negotiation. You can't get a good deal unless you understand what the person on the other side wants, needs, is willing to tolerate and can't abide. The man who wrote The Art of the Deal (or had someone ghostwrite it for him) doesn't appear to get it.
The theory of mounting a trade war is that while both countries will inevitably suffer, the other country will be less able to sustain the damage and will give in to your terms.
If all you knew was that the Chinese sell more goods and services to the United States than vice versa, you might think that they'd blink first, since it would appear that they have more to lose. But that ignores the interplay of politics and economics, which operate very differently in each country.
The first thing to realise is that because China has an authoritarian political system, its leaders are much more insulated from short-term public anger than the leaders of a democracy are.
Trump has to worry about being reelected in 2020; Xi Jinping may well be president for life. If Xi wants to extend this trade war for another year or two or three, he can do it. If Trump does, it greatly raises the likelihood that he will no longer be president seventeen months from now.
At his news conference, Trump repeated multiple times that the trade war had cost China 3 million jobs. It's unclear where he got that figure from, but even if it were true, it wouldn't be much evidence that it is experiencing so much economic pain that it will inevitably cry uncle.
In a country of 1.4 billion people, that represents about two-tenths of 1 per cent of the population — a substantial number, but not enough to trigger a political crisis. And China's unemployment rate, at least officially, is under 4 per cent, about where America's is, which means those people would be able to find other work.
But Trump is convinced that China is hurting more than the US is.
"I think they wanna make a deal, and I think they should make a deal, and I think if they don't make a deal, it's gonna be very bad for China," he said at the news conference.
That's the second part of Trump's argument: America's economy is so spectacular that it can absorb more economic pain than the Chinese.
"We've just got to accept the pain that comes with standing up to China," said Trump toady Senator Lindsey O. Graham on CBS this Sunday. "How do you get China to change without creating some pain on them and us? I don't know."
That is unlikely to be a very persuasive argument to those directly affected by the trade war, including some important constituencies such as farmers, who are growing increasingly distressed as their incomes are hit by China's inevitable retaliation.
And the domestic manufacturers who were supposed to be helped by increased tariffs on Chinese goods aren't benefiting, either. While some manufacturers are indeed leaving China to avoid the tariffs, instead of bringing those jobs to America, they're sending them to low-wage countries such as Vietnam.
That's not even to mention the broader economic consequences that could affect all Americans if the trade war pushes the US toward a recession.
I'm reasonably certain that if anyone tried to explain to Trump the reasons China is in a better position than the United States to tolerate the continuation of this trade war, he'd get bored and stop paying attention.
As he wrote in The Art of the Deal, "My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward. I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I'm after." Understanding the other side is not part of his calculation.
So when "pushing and pushing" fails, he learns nothing.
We saw that in his multiple failed legislative initiatives, from the attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act to the government shutdown of 2018-2019. Every time, he showed no evidence that he knew anything about the members of Congress whose votes he needed, nor cared what incentives and fears they faced. And every time he lost.
At some point, the same thing will happen with the trade war. The economic damage to the United States will become clearer, his reelection chances will get dimmer, and he'll say to himself, "Who could have known the Chinese would be so patient and be better able to endure short-term pain than us?"
The fact that pretty much everyone except for him knew it will not register.