- - Monday, May 13, 2019


Donald Trump campaigned in 2016 on a platform with two main planks. He promised to secure the nation’s southern border and preserve the United States as a sovereign power, one with the unquestioned right to determine who enters and who doesn’t. That is still a work in progress, with no help from Democrats and some establishment Republicans and their allies in big business.

Mr. Trump further promised to rebalance America’s trade relations with the rest of the world. For decades the United States sent manufacturing jobs to undeveloped countries that dramatically undercut U.S. industrial wages. That “giant sucking sound,” as Ross Perot called it, took transplanted American jobs to other nations, while pumping up the economies of nations from Mexico to Vietnam to China and others between. After decades of free trade accords, factories in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania lay idle, with the local Walmart pushing lower-priced goods imported from overseas.

If the president is out to rebalance U.S. trade relations with the rest of the world, righting things with China will have to be the first order of business. China is the world’s largest manufacturer, and a high-volume exporter to the United States. The United States exports little to the Chinese. The inevitable trade deficit with China is huge, about $500 billion annually.

Since his first days in office, Mr. Trump has played hardball with China. He began with modest tariffs on washing machines and solar panels, before ramping things up with 25 percent tariffs on steel imports and 10 percent tariffs on aluminum. China retaliated with tariffs of its own. The game has become one of tit for tat, with China hitting hard at the U.S. soybean trade. China announced new tariffs on American goods on Monday. This particularly hurt farmers in a wide swath of the Middle West and the South, where millions of the president’s most fervent supporters live. The Chinese study the American election returns, too.

It was widely assumed that Mr. Trump’s tariff strategy was merely a means to an end, to pressure the Chinese into co-operating to reduce the trade deficit and reforming its ways, beginning with addressing China’s flagrant intellectual property laws and to reduce China’s wide-ranging industrial espionage.

But with the latest breakdown in trade talks between Washington and Beijing — a large delegation traveled here last week and left with no deal — suggests something new is afoot. The president may see tariffs as a good thing for America, and a strategy for reindustrializing the United States.

After the breakdown of trade meetings in Washington, the president ordered new tariffs, up from 10 percent to 25 percent on some $200 billion of Chinese exports. “We will be taking in Tens of Billions of Dollars in Tariffs from China,” he tweeted with his usual abundance of capital letters. “Buyers of product can make it themselves in the USA (ideal), or buy it from non-Tariffed countries.”

In this tweet, the president seemed to make his aim clear. Maybe he doesn’t really want to resolve the issue soon. Maybe he wants foreign sellers of products to “make it in the United States, to bring home the source of supply. In this accounting, the president’s actual goal is nothing less than a wholesale remaking of the U.S. economic model.

The question is, can it work? Does the United States have the manpower, the ingenuity, the infrastructure and the wherewithal to bring the jobs home? By making Chinese imports more expensive, the president would be setting the table for an industrial renaissance the likes of which we’ve haven’t seen since America sat up fully awake at Pearl Harbor, and soon astonished the world with its industrial power and resolve.

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