Donald Trump’ s political views have shifted back and forth over the decades. At times he has advocated for a wealth tax, national health insurance, and abortion rights. On many issues he has no position at all. Even now, two years after his election to the presidency, he remains ignorant about numerous policy areas. Trump’s lack of knowledge and disengagement is extreme, even in comparison to George W. Bush who, prior to Trump’s election, was seen as the laziest and dumbest president of the modern era. However, all presidents accept the policy positions of their party in most areas and leave the details of policy formulation and implementation to appointees who for the most part have had long careers in those areas, if only as lobbyists seeking to bend governmental decisions to favor their corporate employers. So it is no surprise that Trump, once he decided to pursue the Republican Party’s nomination assumed positions in favor of banning abortion, gutting environmental and financial regulation, and enacting tax cuts heavily skewed toward the rich.
There are two areas in which Trump has taken clear stands: race and trade. Trump’s long record of open racism is obvious and not my focus in this article. Trump also has consistently opposed liberalized trade and believes that trade agreements disadvantage the United States. In his view, when the U.S. runs a trade deficit that is prima facie evidence that the country with a surplus is robbing America. Back in the 1980s he denounced Japan, which to Trump and many others seemed the rising economic power whose innovative firms were dominating the auto and electronics sectors. Trump then advocated for a 20% tariff on Japanese imports. Trump’s views had mainstream support. The Reagan Administration forced Japan to agree to “voluntary” limits on auto exports to the U.S. More significantly, the 1985 Plaza Accord between the U.S., Japan, Germany, Britain and France led to coordinated central bank efforts that pushed the dollar’s value down by almost 50%, giving a huge advantage to American industrial firms. That accord sharply reduced the U.S. trade deficit. Of course, the Reverse Plaza Accord of 1995, which pushed the dollar up against the yen and European currencies, undid those effects, leading to waves of financial speculation that hit Asia, developing countries around the world, and finally the U.S. and Europe in 2008.
The renegotiation of NAFTA between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico is emblematic of the real dynamics of trade deals under Trump. Trump repeatedly called NAFTA a disaster for the U.S. It was a potent argument during the 2008 campaign, in part because Bill Clinton had negotiated NAFTA and therefore Hillary was unable to escape association with the treaty. In addition, for many Trump supporters NAFTA was seen as somehow linked to the supposed waves of Mexican rapists and murderers who Trump claimed were flowing into the U.S. When he assumed office Trump threatened to withdraw from NAFTA. That prospect upset key businesses that were longtime backers of the Republican Party. Republicans in Congress pressured Trump to reach a new agreement with Canada and Mexico.
Trump is facing similar and even more intense pressure to end the trade war with China. He reportedly is spooked by the recent drop in U.S. stock markets and worries, with ample justification, that if there is a recession he will lose in 2020. As with NAFTA, he is sending his team of ideologues, political hacks and crooks to face the seasoned experts of other countries.