Because President Donald Trump emerges as a clear winner from his weeklong confrontation with Mexico over our neighbor’s lax enforcement of its southern border, reflexive Trump critics will scramble to find some way of containing what is a clear Trump triumph, which came with assists by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who conducted the key negotiations.
Already we have heard about long-term damage to trust between the North American allies, about investor nervousness and Trump’s unpredictability. This sort of flailing-about to deny the obvious says nothing about Trump and much about those critics who can no more admit he played high-stakes poker and won a round on border security than they can admit that the president delivered a magnificent tribute to the heroes of Normandy on Thursday.
Much of the media has overheated now and, like an engine that has run too long without an oil change, has begun to seize up, stall, even melt. That Trump has contributed to the slow wreck of American media is undeniable. It’s a feature, not a bug, of his presidency to attack, attack, attack the media elites. And no matter how often center-right journalists counsel him to abandon the Stalinist “enemy of the people” rhetoric, he hasn’t because it triggers a flaming hatred among the ideologies of the left, with platforms and elites eager to signal each other that they are part of the tribe menaced by this Godzilla from Trump Tower.
Voters, though - not just the “Twitter Democrats” but voters of all ages and ideologies - are a pretty smart bunch. Assume for a moment that they know, generally, that tariffs are a lousy idea in terms of economic growth. Assume as well that they know that tariffs can be an instrument of national power in confrontations unrelated to economic growth.
Assume that voters know our competition with China is far more than an economic race, but rather a complex geopolitical rivalry that both sides wish to keep contained short of open conflict and that is waged through proxies, cyber-confrontations, intellectual-property battles, freedom-of-the-seas disputes and the relative size and power of our armed forces and those of our allies. In that context, tariffs on Chinese goods are just part of an overall negotiation toward a new normal that is in everyone’s interest. So “tariffs bad, free trade good” is simplistic. “Free trade is good and agreed-upon international conventions are required for genuinely free trade and tariffs may be necessary to achieve those conventions” is accurate. And widely understood.
“Alliances are good” is simplistic. “Alliances in which allies actually do what they promise with regard to percentage of GDP spent on national defense while not increasing dependence on Russian natural gas” is complex but accurate.
Hard as it is for the Manhattan-Beltway echo chamber to believe, sounding sophisticated isn’t actually being sophisticated. Trump’s record is mixed, but not this week. This week, even as Joe Biden began to melt (the headline in Saturday’s Times of London online edition was “Democrats raise doubts over Joe Biden’s stamina for presidential nomination race” - never a good sign when the neighbors notice these things), Trump put together back-to-back big successes. Historian and classicist Victor Davis Hanson speculates that Trump’s enemies are so addicted to hating him that, in a classic addict pattern, all behaviors are bent in service of the addiction.
This weekend and next week will separate the outrage addicts from the serious journalists. Trump would be very well advised to take this tariff weapon off the table with regard to Mexico. It probably wouldn’t work a second time unless the Mexicans failed to deliver even a halfhearted effort. It’s not the sort of threat you can use twice, and doing so would undo the enormous win he can rightfully paint this to be at rally after rally as Campaign 2020 gets underway.
If Trump invited Democrats back to the White House for immigration reform and border security talks right now, urging them to be as serious as the Mexican government has been about the border crisis, it might actually work. House Democrats passed an immigration bill last week. Senate Republicans could quickly pass their own version to get a joint House-Senate conference with White House participation. Everyone could win: the United States and Mexico, the president and the House speaker, both parties, the undocumented in this country seeking regularization, and the desperate and easily exploited poor of Central America.
Hugh Hewitt is a columnist with The Washington Post.