Donald Trump has (once again) decided to pick a big fight with his own party by betraying conservative economic orthodoxy. Senate Republicans may be willing to abide the president’s naked corruption, contempt for the rule of law, and late night rants about Bette Midler — but across-the board tariffs on Mexican imports are another matter. As the New York Times reported earlier this week:
Republican senators emerged from a closed-door lunch at the Capitol angered by the briefing they received from a deputy White House counsel and an assistant attorney general on the legal basis for Mr. Trump to impose new tariffs by declaring a national emergency at the southern border.
“I want you to take a message back” to the White House, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, told the lawyers, according to people familiar with the meeting. Mr. Cruz warned that “you didn’t hear a single yes” from the Republican conference. He called the proposed tariffs a $30 billion tax increase on Texans.
Nevertheless, Trump has persisted. Ostensibly, the president sees little political downside to flouting his party’s reverence for free market economics. Which makes some sense in the abstract: The mogul won the White House in 2016 while campaigning as a different kind of Republican — one who would protect Social Security and Medicare, and use state power to punish corporations that moved jobs overseas. Polls suggest these heresies led voters to view Trump as a moderate (a perception that has faded considerably since the president took office and immediately tried to take from the poor to give to the rich).
And yet, if the president is willing to antagonize his party and flout its big-dollar donors on some of their lesser priorities, he could be doing so in the name of a cause more popular than “increasing the cost of cars and avocados.”
In fact, polls suggest that Trump’s heretical trade policies have little appeal outside his base of die-hard supporters. A Quinnipiac poll from late last month found that only 39 percent of voters approve of Trump’s handling of trade. Critically, there’s little evidence that this minority faction is concentrated in the key Rust Belt states where Trump’s nationalist shtick is supposed to pay dividends. As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent notes:
Unlike in 2016, voters have now seen the concrete results of Trump’s nationalist trade bluster — and the genuinely held worldview underpinning it — colliding with the complex realities of international diplomacy and the global economy.
That collision has rendered Trump vulnerable on trade — even in the Rust Belt. A new Detroit News poll of Michigan finds that Trump trails most Democratic hopefuls, some by large margins. Notably, 47 percent of Michigan voters say Trump’s China policies are bad for the state, vs. only 26 percent who say the opposite.
Crucially, among Michigan union households, opposition climbs to 55 percent, and independents oppose the policies by 2 to 1. Those groups likely include many of the blue-collar white and Obama-Trump voters Democrats must win back.
To be sure, in the specific case of Trump’s Mexico tariffs, the official objective of his policy is border security, not economic nationalism. But it remains the case that this trade policy — like many of his previous ones — antagonize his fellow Republicans for economic reasons. And if he’s going to cause intraparty strife over economics anyway, he might as well do it in a manner that actually redounds to his own political benefit — like, for example, taking Walmart’s advice on the federal minimum wage.
At his company’s shareholder meeting Wednesday, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon called on Congress to raise the federal wage floor. This was no act of altruism or noblesse oblige. At present, Walmart maintains a minimum wage of $11 at its stores. Given that Republicans control the Senate and even House Democrats can’t agree on raising the federal minimum to $15, it seems safe to assume that a wage hike would not affect Walmart, but would drive up the labor costs of some of its competitors.
And the same dynamic would hold for many of America’s other major corporations. Meanwhile, due to inflation and tight labor markets, raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10 wouldn’t even significantly inconvenience the small business owners in the GOP coalition. Such a move might inflame the party’s libertarian ideologues — but as we’ve already seen, Trump has no compunction about doing that. And anyhow, the last Republican president managed to sign a minimum wage hike into law without attracting any significant opposition from his congressional allies.
Thus, there’s little reason to think that Trump would shatter his coalition by pushing for a hike in the federal wage floor. And doing so would be immensely popular, win him plaudits from a mainstream press desperate for an opportunity to celebrate acts of bipartisan normalcy, and potentially help restore his lost aura of “moderation” (in the eyes of white swing voters unperturbed by his racial politics).
Fortunately, Trump is not very good at recognizing his own political self-interest, let alone figuring out how to go about pursuing it. This specific form of incompetence may be one of our president’s most beneficent qualities.