Still, Mr. Trump hasn’t acknowledged that many United States industries — not just foreign ones — benefit from tariffs. The reason Detroit’s Big Three automakers still sell so many trucks in the United States, and at such high profit margins, is in large part thanks to an existing 25 percent tariff on imports.
The United States also has relatively high tariffs on imported food, clothing and building materials, and it maintains large agricultural subsidies. Eliminating those barriers would benefit American consumers, but at the expense of those favored industries. “It’s basically the most regressive tax imaginable,” Mr. Ikenson said of the American tariffs. “They hit food, clothing and shelter.”
Larry Kudlow, Mr. Trump’s chief economic adviser and a longtime free-trade advocate, has said Mr. Trump’s commitment to lower trade barriers is real. The tariff threats, according to Mr. Kudlow, are just a means to that end, a “wake-up” call to America’s trading partners who have long gamed the system to their advantage.
If so, that approach has yet to show any results, while drawing fire from economists of all political stripes. “Using tariffs as a bargaining chip makes no sense,” Mr. Ikenson said. “They’re just a tax on the consumer. They invite retaliation.”
That Mr. Trump is simultaneously threatening all of our major trading partners is also puzzling. “I was always taught that if you spread yourself over a dozen fronts, you end up losing on all of them,” Mr. Feulner said. “Why not go after China first, and then turn to whoever you think is the next troublemaker? We’ve caused them all to band together.”
Mr. Meltzer agreed. “Why wage war on everyone at once? It shows a complete lack of strategy,” he said. “This administration didn’t have the faintest notion of how other countries would react and wasn’t prepared for it. Trump thought the U.S. was big enough that it could bully people. That has proved manifestly wrong.”
If anything, foreign leaders like Canada’s Justin Trudeau and Germany’s Angela Merkel have gained political stature by standing up to Mr. Trump’s threats.