Will This Trade War Be Donald Trump’s Political Waterloo?

Earlier this month, I happened to spend an afternoon in southwestern Pennsylvania shooting the breeze with an ardent Trump supporter. In fact, I not-so-accidentally ruined his whole day.

He was a handyman by trade who did some scrap and salvage on the side. At one point, he handed me a heavy cord of rubber-wrapped copper wires that was half a foot long and more than an inch thick. Copper salvage was his best payday, he told me. He had piles of the stuff in his garage and was planning to cash it in later that week. He was very pleased with himself as I gave him back the cord, and when he hefted it in his hand, you could almost hear the coins clinking in his mind.

A better man might have kept his mouth shut, but I am not that better man. “Ah, dude.” I said, “You probably want to check the price index and wait a bit. Copper is getting crushed right now.” His eyebrows crouched like gargoyles on a French church. “Seriously,” I continued. “You’ve heard about this trade war, right?” He whipped out his smartphone, looked something up, stopped breathing for a long five seconds and excused himself from the room.

I make no claim to be an economics wizard. I was an English Literature major once upon a time, and if you gave me a choice between doing long division and a good caning, I would opt for the sticks to ease the pain. I am, however, a fair student of politics, and I can smell blood on the wind like a hunting hound. The look on that handyman’s face as he contemplated his crumbling copper fortune told me everything I needed to know about Donald Trump’s self-destructive trade war, and none of it bodes well for the tangerine-in-chief.

Why did Trump start a trade war with China, Mexico, Canada and the European Union? The answer seems to be part of his larger scheme to obliterate every positive relationship the US has with its allies, up to and including NATO. Suspicious minds might even see the guiding hand of Vladimir Putin in all this, who is, according to The New York Times, “gaining considerable traction by casting himself as a reliable friend and trading partner to Europe even as the Trump administration was treating its closest allies there as strategic and economic competitors.”

Regardless of what his motivations might be, the aftershocks of the economic fight Trump has picked are being keenly felt by the very people who helped elect him in 2016. “President Trump visited Peosta, Iowa, just west of Dubuque on Thursday,” reported ABC News, “to tour a community college and host a panel on workforce development. But it was not clear how much face-to-face time he would get with farmers like Recker who say they’re already feeling the pinch from Trump’s trade war.”

The trade war is affecting a broad spectrum of industries from steel to cotton to pork, but the soybean farmers are the ones taking the tariffs most visibly in the teeth. While Trump spent the latter part of the week making happy noises about a potential trade deal with the EU that would include Europe purchasing more US soybeans and natural gas, the deal is far from complete. Worse, there is as yet no deal with China, the largest customer for US soybeans, and the tariffs China has imposed in retaliation to Trump’s war are sinking their fangs in deep. Worst of all, Trump shows no sign whatsoever of stopping his protectionist flail any time soon.

Yet even Trump himself, never one to easily admit error, appears to have noticed the damage he has done to himself and his party’s prospects in the upcoming midterm elections. On Tuesday, the administration announced a $12 billion aid package would be coming to farmers affected by the trade war. The announcement was greeted with howls of dismay from conservatives in Congress, and from farmers who spoke in slow-burn anger about not wanting “handouts.”

“The farm aid,” reported The New York Times, “appeared calculated to show that Mr. Trump cares about farmers and is working to protect them from the worst consequences of his trade war. But the relief money, announced by the Department of Agriculture, was also an indication that Mr. Trump — ignoring the concerns of farmers, their representatives in Congress and even some of his own aides — plans to extend his tit-for-tat tariff wars.”

Michigan. Wisconsin. Pennsylvania. South Carolina. Iowa. Donald Trump is president today largely because of the voters in these states, and those voters are taking a severe economic beating because of him. In Michigan and Wisconsin, his poll numbers are at 36 percent and sagging quickly. If China decides to up the ante and slather on even more sanctions, the pain will only get worse. Fear of this is so present that Senate Republicans on Thursday — with no debate — passed a bill to cut or lower tariffs on almost a thousand Chinese-made products.

I’m no economist, but I can read a map, and there’s a big damn election coming in November. Everything, up to and including Donald Trump’s job security and personal freedom, is riding on that vote. Covert payouts to adult film actresses and Playboy models have not been enough to shake loose his core support. Like as not, damning revelations from Robert Mueller will also fail to move his people, as they have been indoctrinated to believe the whole thing is a corrupt sham run by crooked “deep state” operators who hate America, or something.

Hit these people — Iowa farmers, Pennsylvania steelworkers and my copper-collecting handyman — in the wallet, however, and it’s an entirely different story. It isn’t just the working stiffs getting steamed, either; the US Chamber of Commerce, hardly a bastion of liberal ideology, is raising hell over the tariffs, as are other moneyed interests that under usual circumstances represent the other half of Trump’s political base.

If Trump continues on this course, he may very well be cobbling together a political Waterloo not just for himself, but for the party that is beginning to strongly regret the adoption papers they signed in 2016.