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Governing by Tweet

January 3, 2017

Much of what Donald Trump promises to do as president will be terrible: for example, putting Scott Pruitt in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency; putting Rick Perry in charge of the Department of Energy; putting Jeff Sessions in charge of pretty much anything. Trump’s Supreme Court appointments will do serious damage to abortion rights. Trump’s Justice Department will do serious damage to voting rights. Nobody knows how much damage Trump is going to do to health care insurance in this country. Discrimination will be re-legalized in the name of religious liberty. Protection of guns will prevail over protection from guns. Federal minimum wage increases are out the window, and federal support for labor unions is dead. The polar icecaps are toast, so to speak.

My suspicion is that we have not yet begun to conceive the measures that the Trump Administration and its Congressional allies-of-convenience will take to erase all evidence that Barack Obama was ever president, and to ensure that no one like him ever becomes president again.

But two things President-Elect Trump has been spending his transition time on are different: pushing corporations to create and maintain American manufacturing jobs, and pushing foreign governments (aside from Russia, anyway) to behave more favorably to American interests.

The conventional critique of Trump has not been that those goals are wrong, but that his unconventional pursuit of them will be ineffective, or even destructive. He has been criticized for acting like he is the president before he is actually the president; for formulating policy not out of consultation or deliberation, but out of middle-of-the-night impulse; for announcing policy in tweets that, by virtue of their 140-character limit necessarily elide nuance, let alone diplomacy; for trying to bully his way through a complex world; and for reducing policy to “some dominance-submission male rivalry game” of “trash-talking.”

Trump’s defenders typically resort to the argument that the President-Elect conducted an unconventional campaign and can be expected to conduct an unconventional presidency – as if defying convention is in and of itself a governing virtue. But what if Trump is onto something? What if his tactics work?

Trump bullied Ford Motor Co. into canceling construction of a $1.6 billion plant in Mexico. Instead, Ford is going to expand production at existing factories in the U.S. and Mexico. On the same day as Ford’s announcement, Trump trash-tweeted about General Motors’ plan to expand production in Mexico of one of its models. GM answered that very few of the Mexican-made vehicles are sold in the U.S.; most of them are marketed globally. But GM’s argument is directed at Trump’s threat to force GM to manufacture in the U.S. by imposing steep import tariffs, entirely missing the only point that Trump cares about – that American manufacturing companies ought to create and sustain manufacturing jobs in America, not Mexico.

Trump’s victories on this front have been only partial, and the numbers of jobs trivial. Ford is expanding manufacturing capacity in the U.S. and Mexico, not just in the U.S., and is not moving a single job back to the States. The new Ford plan will apparently create about 700 jobs in Michigan. For a $7 million payoff from Indiana taxpayers, Carrier Corporation agreed to keep about 800 jobs in the U.S., out of more than 2,000 jobs it originally intended to send to Mexico. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has pointed out that Trump would have to close a Carrier-sized deal every week for 30 years to save as many American manufacturing jobs as President Obama saved with the auto industry bailout; the Ford announcement comes five weeks after the Carrier deal, and it involves fewer jobs.

Still, small results are results. And there is the possibility that these small results will become self-sustaining, if corporations choose to avoid Trump’s Twitter-wrath by not making plans to manufacture in Mexico in the first place.

I’m a free-trade Democrat, which means among other things that I am a capitalist with the courage of my convictions. A bedrock foundation of capitalist theory is that all parties are best served when the components of commerce – labor, capital, and goods – are allowed to move as markets dictate, not as governments dictate. Protectionists either are not capitalists or are capitalist pretenders who lack the courage of their supposedly capitalist convictions.

I also believe that free trade is essential to a durable end of large-scale illegal immigration. There is no wall high enough to keep people out who are desperate for a chance to work for a wage. As long as there is poverty, and the social pathologies that accompany poverty, people will find ways to flee them. You can’t outlaw desperation, and it turns out that desperation is a powerful human motivator.

The North American Free Trade Agreement took effect on January 1, 1994. Economists credit NAFTA with only relatively small reductions in the Mexican poverty rate. But economists credit NAFTA with a very large boost to the Mexican middle class, lowering the cost of basic goods by about half, endowing the Mexican middle class with resources to spend on educating their children. Mexico now graduates more engineers each year than Germany. A growing professional class promises a growing economy, with robust job creation.

And guess what? Net migration from Mexico to the United States has been negative since about 2009, and the trend is accelerating. In other words, for about eight years, more people have moved from the United States to Mexico than vice versa. It’s not a stretch to say, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign notwithstanding, that the “problem” of immigration from Mexico has been solved. Today, most of the people crossing the Mexican border into the United States are not Mexicans, but Central Americans, fleeing violence and poverty in those countries, desperately for a chance to work for a wage.

So Donald Trump’s approach to manufacturing jobs is both small-bore and partly counterproductive. Moreover, his successes can only be counted as provisional, as industries that incur the higher costs of American wages concomitantly incur greater pressure to invest in automation.

Trump’s other transition-time preoccupation has been foreign affairs. He has sided with Vladimir Putin and Russia against the sitting American government and the findings of our intelligence bureaucracies. He has sided with Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel against the sitting American government and our 45-year-old position that Israel’s West Bank settlements violate the Fourth Geneva Convention’s prohibition against moving civilian populations into territory taken by military force during war.

Now he’s tweeting at North Korea, specifically Kim Jong-un’s claim that North Korea is nearly ready to test an intercontinental ballistic missile that would be capable of striking the American west coast. And he’s tweeting at China, blaming that country for failing to “help” the United States persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Even if tweeting at American corporations proves to be a scalable strategy for altering manufacturing plant-siting plans, tweeting is less likely to be a successful strategy for altering the interests of whole countries. I’ve expressed my skepticism that China has the ability that Westerners assume it has, to stand North Korea down with a phone call, and I’ve opined that North Korea’s nuclear deterrent may be directed as much at China as at the United States: the U.S. maintains fewer than 30,000 military personnel in South Korea, while the Chinese People’s Liberation Army numbers more than two million, with 20 million more Chinese reaching military age every year.

I can’t imagine that China wants a nuclear-armed North Korea, run by a family dynasty of dubious reliability, any more than the U.S. does. If the four million people of Los Angeles are within range of North Korean missiles, then all 1.4 billion people of China are also within range. And Chinese missile defenses, such as they may be, would have a whole lot less warning that the missiles are inbound.

If China has been pressuring North Korea to moderate its nuclear ambitions and hasn’t succeeded, then Trump’s tweets are useless. And if China has not been pressuring North Korea despite its greater vulnerability to North Korean nuclear missiles, then Trump’s tweets are probably useless anyway.

There was one Trumpian tweet that was undoubtedly successful. Late on Monday, the Republican conference of the House of Representatives voted, against the objections of caucus leaders (but not ultimately without their votes), to gut the independent Office of Congressional Ethics. The move had nearly unlimited disaster potential, and the commentariat was all over it. Even Republican pundits were shaking their heads at the unbelievable stupidity of it.

Trump reacted in a pair of tweets this morning at 10:03 and 10:07. He didn’t defend the Ethics Office, or so much as acknowledge the value of the office’s independence. Instead, Trump questioned whether attacking the office was an appropriate top priority for Republicans. By this afternoon, House Republicans had reversed themselves.

Another president would have called up a few key House Republicans and asked them politely, if perhaps somewhat urgently, if they had lost their minds. Another president would have allowed House Republicans to recall their own error. But as has been noted, Donald Trump is not just another president. Donald Trump had to engage in his trash-talking game of dominance-submission male rivalry.


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