Trump’s tantrums as companies respond to his economic policies are dripping with contempt for the rule of law, says J Bradford DeLong.
THE Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell recalled that when US president Donald Trump held a session for Harley-Davidson executives and union representatives at the White House in February, 2017, he thanked them “for building things in America”.
Trump predicted that the iconic American motorcycle company would expand under his watch.
“I know your business is now doing very well,” he observed, “and there’s a lot of spirit right now in the country that you weren’t having so much in the last number of months that you have right now.”
What a difference a year makes. Harley-Davidson recently announced that it would move some of its operations to jurisdictions not subject to the EU’s retaliatory measures, adopted in response to Trump’s tariffs on imported steel and aluminium.
Trump then took to Twitter to say he was “surprised that Harley-Davidson, of all companies, would be the first to wave the white flag”. He then made a promise that he cannot keep: “Ultimately, they will not pay tariffs selling into the EU.”
Surprised that Harley-Davidson, of all companies, would be the first to wave the White Flag. I fought hard for them and ultimately they will not pay tariffs selling into the E.U., which has hurt us badly on trade, down $151 Billion. Taxes just a Harley excuse - be patient! #MAGA— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 25, 2018
Then, in a later tweet, Trump falsely stated: “Early this year, Harley-Davidson said they would move much of their plant operations in Kansas City to Thailand,” and that “they were just using tariffs/trade war as an excuse”.
In fact, when the company announced the closure of its plant in Kansas City, Missouri, it said it would move those operations to York, Pennsylvania. At any rate, Trump’s point is nonsensical. If companies are acting in anticipation of his own announcement that he is launching a trade war, then his trade war is not just an excuse.
In yet another tweet, Trump turned to threats.
“Harley must know that they won’t be able to sell back into US without paying a big tax!”
Again, this is nonsensical: the point of Harley-Davidson shifting some of its production to countries not subject to EU tariffs is to sell tariff-free motorcycles to Europeans.
In a final tweet, Trump decreed: “A Harley-Davidson should never be built in another country — never!”
He then promised the destruction of the company, and thus the jobs of its workers: “If they move, watch, it will be the beginning of the end — they surrendered, they quit! The aura will be gone and they will be taxed like never before!”
Trump’s statements are dripping with contempt for the rule of law. And none of them could be called trade policy, let alone governance.
It is as if we have returned to the days of Henry VIII, with an impulsive, deranged monarch surrounded by a gaggle of plutocrats, lickspittles, and flatterers, all trying to advance their careers while keeping the ship of state afloat.
Trump is incapable of executing the duties of his office in good faith. The US House of Representatives and Senate should have impeached him and removed him from office already, for violations of the US Constitution’s emoluments clause, if nothing else.
Barring that, vice-president Mike Pence should have long ago invoked the 25th amendment, which provides for the removal of a president whom a majority of the cabinet has deemed “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”.
And yet, neither speaker of the house Paul Ryan nor senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, nor Pence, has dared to do anything about Trump’s assault on American democracy.
Republicans are paralysed by the fear that, if they turn on Trump, who is now supported by roughly 90% of their party’s base, they will all suffer at the polls in the midterm congressional election this November.
It is nice to think that the election will fix everything. But, at a minimum, the Democratic Party needs a six percentage point edge to retake the House of Representatives, owing to Republican gerrymandering of congressional districts.
Democrats also have to overcome a gerrymandering effect in the Senate. Right now, the 49 senators who caucus with the Democrats represent 181m people, whereas the 51 who caucus with the Republicans represent 142m people.
The US is notorious for its low voter turnout during midterm elections, which hurts Democratic candidates’ prospects. And Trump and congressional Republicans have been presiding over a strong economy, which they inherited from former president Barack Obama but are happy to claim as their own.
Finally, one must not discount the fear factor. Countless Americans routinely fall victim to social and TV-media advertising campaigns that play to their worst instincts. In this election cycle, as in the past, elderly white voters will be fed a steady diet of bombast about the threat posed by immigrants, people of colour, Muslims, and other Trump-voter bugaboos (that is, when they aren’t being sold fake diabetes cures and overpriced gold funds).
Regardless of what happens this November, it is already clear that the American century ended on November 8, 2016.
On that day, the US ceased to be the world’s leading superpower — the flawed but ultimately well-meaning guarantor of peace, prosperity, and human rights around the world.
America’s days of Kindlebergian hegemony are now behind it. The credibility that has been lost to the Trumpists — abetted by Russia and the US electoral college — can never be regained.
J. Bradford DeLong is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.