Don’t kid yourself. President Donald Trump is not risking an international trade war in order to fulfill a campaign promise. This has nothing to do with slapping tariffs on imported steel and aluminum from China and other countries. It has everything to do with something Trump cares most about: his image.
For a year and more, the president has fought growing awareness that his surprise victory might not have been possible without assistance from Russian operatives who, according to the FBI, waged “information warfare against the United States,” sabotaged Hillary Clinton’s campaign and helped Trump.
Losing the popular vote meant some people already viewed him as an illegitimate president. But as the picture of Russia’s cyberassault becomes clearer, his ego must contend with another painful adjective: Trump’s not just illegitimate. He’s weak.
That’s not possible in Trump’s mind. He won on his image as the toughest guy in the room. Jeb Bush was low energy. Marco Rubio was little. Ted Cruz was lying. Clinton was crooked and nasty. America was going to hell, and the only man mighty enough to make it great again was Donald J. Trump.
Cartoons on President Donald Trump
Trump’s problem gets worse. The U.S. intelligence community expects Russia to continue its assault on the upcoming midterm elections. U.S. spy chiefs have said that Trump has not ordered any kind of deterrence. These facts put the president in a pickle. Doing something about Russia would be a de facto admission of weakness. Doing nothing would be too. So Trump’s between rock and a hard place. And there’s nothing to be done but rage.
Hence why we are debating the pros and cons of import tariffs, a debate that has nothing to do with tariffs and everything to do with the president’s growing fear he will soon be found out.
I presume Trump thinks this is a safe gambit because it has worked before. In a past jams, he punched down. But steel-consuming industries aren’t the same as minorities, women, immigrants, the disabled and groups that can’t be expected to punch back with equal power. There are fortunes at stake, not to mention hundreds of thousands of white, working-class jobs.
Again, Trump is in a no-win situation. If he follows through on tariffs, he will thrill a fraction of his base, literally no more than 200,000 people and the remaining mills employing them. If he follows through, however, he will enrage some of his biggest supporters: metal-consuming industries hiring legions of workers whose livelihoods may be in jeopardy thanks to tariffs.
There is yet another no-win situation that could occur – if the president backs down. Though a sigh of relief for supporters in metal-consuming industries, it would be a sign of weakness to those 200,000 people working in steel and aluminum mills (and probably to supporters relieved he changed his mind about tariffs). Worse, backing down would be the result of Republican pressure. In backing down, in other words, Trump will have sent a signal to supporters that he is not the man mighty enough to make American great again. He is, in fact, a weak president.
Trump’s genius has been in assuming, rightly, that a good many Americans don’t know much about policy, don’t know that they don’t know and don’t care to know that they don’t know. He has assumed, rightly, that many Americans are less confident in their ability to judge policy details than in judging a person’s “character.” As long as Trump can maintain an image of strength, being right or wrong on policy is beside the point.
Many wonder how the most unpopular of modern presidents can bottom out around 35 percent in approval surveys. I think it’s because – no matter how ridiculous Trump is, no matter how wrong, no matter how corrupt and infantile – his strongman image goes a long way in preventing him from going lower. Again, that’s because Trump is essentially right about a good chunk of the electorate: “Character” is what matters most.
But when a president has nothing else to offer, not even a sense of humor, character can be a brittle thing. Once doubt creeps in to voter’s minds, it’s hard to get it out. Once present, each passing day with news about Russia and tariffs serves to deepen doubt’s hold on the mind, undermining the president’s elaborate illusion of a man who can make American great again. If Trump’s base loses just ounce of trust, it’s the beginning of the end.
This is why Trump fights so fiercely. Yes, it’s about his ego, but an experienced grifter like Trump knows he’s got nothing when the mark starts losing faith. Real tipping points are rare, but this feels like it has the makings of a moment of no return. If Trump does something about Russia, he looks weak. If nothing, weak. If he acts on tariffs, he risks his base. If does not act, he’s weak. At some point, supporters are going feel free saying they didn’t really like Trump all that much, and this, I hope, is why.