President Donald Trump wanted to teach China a lesson.
China, it appears, plans to respond by teaching Americans a lesson – about the wisdom of voting for Donald Trump.
That’s the most immediate result of the trade war the president seems determined to initiate.
A few days ago, citing concerns about China’s refusal to honor intellectual property rights, Trump said he was going to impose $50 billion worth of tariffs on Chinese goods. China’s government reacted to that by pledging to enact tariffs on $50 billion of U.S. goods, including many agricultural products.
Trump took that as a challenge and vowed to up the ante with another $100 billion of tariffs. China’s leaders saw that and raised the bet by saying that, while they weren’t going to start a trade war, they weren’t going to back away from one, either.
The next step in this diplomatic and economic playground brawl is for one side or the other to say, “So’s your old man.”
All this might be funny if so many people weren’t likely to be hurt by it.
And the people who are most likely to feel the most pain are the ones who already are hurting – poor and blue-collar Americans.
That, of course, is the nature of all trade wars.
When two countries start erecting barriers to trade on each other’s products, there’s always one group that is wounded.
A tariff is a tax by another name, a government-imposed elevation of the cost of purchase. Imposing a tariff means that we are asking our citizens to pay higher prices for products they want so that one industry or another in this country is protected from competition.
There are reasons to establish tariffs. Some industries can be so vital to a nation’s security and so difficult to restart should they collapse that they must be protected, even if it means the country’s people must make sacrifices in the process.
Even in those cases, though, care must be taken, because a tariff is like a gun that shoots bullets in both directions. We can’t shoot others without shooting ourselves, too.
Because tariffs are government interventions in the workings of the market, conservatives most often oppose them.
That is one reason Republicans are queasy about them. It’s difficult to proclaim devotion to free-market thought and principles and endorse policies that restrict the flow of goods and impose taxes on consumers at the same time.
The other reason Republicans are uneasy is that this specific trade war is likely to hit their voters hard.
The Chinese were savvy in selecting the American products they targeted for tariffs. By and large, those products come from states, such as Indiana, that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump and the GOP in 2016.
That means affected industries in those states will find that the costs of doing business in one of the world’s largest markets have increased. Those industries can try to pass their costs onto consumers in the form of higher prices. But, if that doesn’t work, those industries will try to go in another direction – by reducing the costs they can control.
Such as, by cutting payroll and eliminating jobs.
That’s what makes this so troubling.
President Trump seems eager to mix it up with the Chinese. He’s all but daring them to knock the chip off his shoulder, so he can show the world just how tough he is.
But, when the dust settles, he’s not likely to feel much pain from this encounter. His business interests are hard to target and, even if it were possible for the Chinese to hit him in the wallet, he’s adept at finding ways to leave someone else holding the bag while he skips away from a failure.
The people who voted for him – the people who placed their faith in him – are another story.
They have nowhere to run, no shelter to seek, no soft place to land.
This time, if Trump screws up, the people who put him in the White House will take the hit for him.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.