In Trump's Trade War, Americans Will Be Asked To Show Economic Patriotism | Connecticut Public Radio
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In Trump's Trade War, Americans Will Be Asked To Show Economic Patriotism

May 20, 2019
Originally published on May 20, 2019 9:10 am

Bob Best enthusiastically supports President Trump's tough policies against China and other countries.

"I'm not a big tariff guy. I'm a free trade guy," says Best, who manages a heating and air conditioning company in Kennesaw, Ga.

"But sometimes when the bully just doesn't listen, you've got to punch him in the mouth. And that's what he's doing."

Best supports the president's actions even though they affect him directly. The price of the heating and air conditioning units that his company sells went up by as much as $150 apiece after the cost of building them went up because Trump placed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports last year. He had to pass the increase on to his customers.

Trump will have to appeal to Americans' national pride, and even their patriotism, to succeed in leveling the playing field with China. That's because virtually every American is likely to feel an impact if Trump's tariffs go forward on just about everything imported from China. He will have to persuade Americans that what's at stake transcends their own interests.

Americans may not like paying higher prices on imported products, but they are more likely to tolerate them if they perceive that American values are at stake, says Henry Olsen, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

"I think you have an element of patriotism," Olsen says. "People recognize that the Chinese government is not a free government, it's not a democratic government, and that it's increasingly becoming a threat to us and the other countries that do believe in those things."

As an abstract idea, Americans are big backers of trade. Seventy-four percent see trade as a net positive for the economy. Mohamed Younis, editor-in-chief at Gallup News, says most people believe trade lowers prices overall and leads to a greater selection of products.

But 62% of Americans believe trade with China is unfair, he says.

Last week, Trump hiked tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese products from 10% to 25% and has threatened to levy that amount on an additional $325 billion worth of goods.

Tariffs are like taxes paid by importers at U.S. ports when they clear customs. Those businesses have to either swallow the cost themselves or pass it on to customers. The risk for Trump is that Americans will balk at paying higher prices. So far, there's little evidence that's happening.

And support from some of the hardest hit remains firm. Even farmers, who have borne the brunt from the trade war, continue to support Trump in large numbers, says Rhonda Brooks, editor of Farm Journal, which regularly surveys ranchers and farmers about their political views.

"They believe very strongly that this is a president who is — more than any president in recent history, actually — who's really been talking about farmers and at least acknowledging them and that he wants to help them," Brooks says.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

All right. Elsewhere in economics, President Trump has complicated the relationship between the U.S. and many of its biggest trading partners - he put tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, he renegotiated NAFTA, he started a trade war with China. But some of the people who've been hurt by Trump's policies are his biggest supporters, like farmers, and there is no sign for the moment that they're giving up on him. NPR's Jim Zarroli has the story.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Bob Best manages a heating and air-conditioning company in suburban Atlanta. He says President Trump's steel and aluminum tariffs have raised the cost of the units he buys by as much as $150 each. But he says he still supports Trump 100%.

BOB BEST: You know, I'm not a big tariff guy; I'm a free trade guy. But sometimes, when the bully just doesn't listen, you've got to punch him in the mouth. I mean - and that's exactly what he's doing.

ZARROLI: The bully he's talking about is China, but he says a lot of countries take advantage of the U.S. on trade. Trump, he says, is the first president to really try to do something about it. As an abstract idea, Americans are huge supporters of trade; they think it's good for the country. Mohamed Younis is editor in chief at Gallup, which regularly asks people whether they think trade represents an opportunity for economic growth.

MOHAMED YOUNIS: Seventy-four percent of Americans say that it is, and that number has actually been climbing since 2011.

ZARROLI: But Younis says there's something of a partisan split on the issue.

YOUNIS: The Republicans have become more negative on trade, basically since President Trump was running for office.

ZARROLI: He says GOP voters are much more likely to express skepticism about trade and to approve of Trump's aggressive agenda. Trump's policies have been especially hard on farmers, for example, but they still basically support him. Farm Journal regularly surveys farmers and ranchers about their political views. Editor Rhonda Brooks says 73% of farmers strongly or somewhat approved of Trump's job performance in the last survey in April. Brooks says there's no evidence that support is waning.

RHONDA BROOKS: They believe very strongly that this is a president who is - more than any president in recent history actually, who's really been talking about farmers and at least, you know, acknowledging them and that he wants to help them.

ZARROLI: Even as Trump's tariffs have sent farm prices plummeting, he's provided billions of dollars in aid to keep farmers going. Another reason Trump has held onto his supporters is that he has focused a lot of his rhetoric against China, says Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. More so than other countries, China is seen as a rival that doesn't play fair, and a lot of Americans think it doesn't follow the rules on trade.

HENRY OLSEN: I think you have an element of patriotism - that people recognize that the Chinese government is not a free government, it's not a democratic government, and that it's increasingly becoming a threat to us and the other countries who do believe in those things.

ZARROLI: Olsen, who writes a column for The Washington Post, says there's another factor, as well, and that's the partisan realignment taking place right now - educated voters who tend to benefit from trade are increasingly voting Democratic; working-class voters who often see trade as a threat are voting more Republican. The question now is whether Trump's support on trade will last. Monte Peterson (ph) is a soybean farmer in North Dakota. He says he voted for Trump in 2016. I asked him whether he would do so again.

MONTE PETERSON: I think that really depends on what he's able to get accomplished from now until election time.

ZARROLI: Peterson says so far, he's not really impressed by Trump's trade policies, but there's still time for him to change his mind. And if Trump really hopes to level the playing field with China in the months to come, he needs to hold on to voters such as Peterson and convince them that the short-term pain they're undergoing will be worth it in the end. Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

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