Trump TV Season 2 is wrapping up with a series of cliffhangers.
Will the tentative truce with China hold or will the “Tariff Man” President Trump go full steam ahead with his trade war?
Is he going to work with or rage against the Democrat-led House next year?
Can a new chief of staff bring order to the chaos?
And will the President shut down the government just before Christmas to try to force funding for a wall at the Mexican border?
Trump has always been a creature of self-promotion, a savant of the salacious headline and keenly aware of just how to hold the attention of the masses. His approach is not one of policy nuance or deliberate decision-making, but visceral reaction and bombast.
For better or worse, the skills Trump learned in reality TV have translated to the White House. The Oval Office has become the nerve center for a new kind of 24-hour programming — the Reality Presidency — and it has dominated the headlines throughout 2018.
Actual reality is optional. According to the Washington Post’s tally, the President has made 6,420 false or misleading claims while in office but is clearly undaunted.
Trump smashes through the norms of being President and looks like no other commander in chief because he is not so much orchestrating a cohesive agenda for the country but rather creating content.
It starts with a gut instinct — for instance, that something drastic on trade with China needs to be done — and leads to big statements on the ultimate of short-form platforms: Twitter. That fuels countless hours of news coverage, outraged think pieces from the establishment and rah-rah statements from allies on the right. Each cover story and cable news crawler sinks into Trump’s all-important base, leaving the impression that something’s getting done.
To work, the approach needs to be ceaseless, stoke outrage and be renewed regularly with new controversy and drama — each story line needs to build up tension that is only partially released with a plot twist.
Trump started the season — ahem, year — with a round of planned tariffs on Chinese imports in January, a move intended to punish the country for unfair trade practices. (China’s trade practices have been a source of frustration for U.S. trade officials for over a decade and action has long been promised, but not really delivered. But Trump’s approach, led by instinct, has been more bull in the China shop than thoughtful regulation of one of the world’s most important economic relationships.)
More duties were promised in May, prompting China to retaliate and leading to a series of tit-for-tat moves by the superpowers. The result? The U.S. slapped 10 percent tariffs on a total of $250 billion worth of Chinese goods. China had less to work with and placed levies on $110 billion of U.S. imports.
With the U.S. duties slated to ratchet up to 25 percent at the end of the year and another $200 billion round of tariffs in the offing, Trump held a high-stakes meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a late-November G20 meeting in Buenos Aires. The trade war gave Trump plenty to trumpet during the midterm elections, which saw the Republicans retain control of the Senate, but Trump softened his approach at the dinner meeting.
Trump and Xi agreed to a 90-day truce, with the U.S. shelving plans to increase levies, many of which would have boosted prices on consumer goods such as handbags.
The relief was palatable. Many supply chains had already been shifted and importers relying on goods made in China were still rushing for the ports to gain entry to the U.S. But there was a sense the future would indeed be marked by a more stable trade regime than the immediate past.
It didn’t last long.
“President Xi and I want this deal to happen, and it probably will,” Trump tweeted shortly after the truce was called. “But if not [and an agreement isn’t reached] remember, I am a Tariff Man. When people or countries come in to raid the great wealth of our Nation, I want them to pay for the privilege of doing so. It will always be the best way to max out our economic power. We are right now taking in $billions in Tariffs. MAKE AMERICA RICH AGAIN.”
“Tariff Man” took off, casting the Trump presidency as something of a superhero flick or a tough-guy Western.
The fresh dose of uncertainty sent the stock market reeling — the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell nearly 800 points — and another Trumpian plot twist was sprung.
As the year nears its end, no one is anywhere nearer the wiser about what the resolution will be — leaving the storyline to carry on into Season 3.
Trade is a theme Trump has played with before, with friend and foe alike.
The administration has also sparred with Britain, Japan and European authorities, among others. Trump got into a spat with Canada over negotiations for a new North American Free Trade Agreement, which links the U.S. with Canada and Mexico. Trump pledged to pull out of NAFTA on the campaign trail and sought to renegotiate its terms since entering the White House, labeling it “the worst trade deal in history” and arguing that it has moved vital jobs out of the U.S. Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau traded barbs as the tension grew.
Eventually, the three countries made a last-minute deal at the end of September. Canada finally surrendered just before the official deadline passed and the three-way trade deal went through after a year of torturous negotiations.
In a press conference, Trump said the new landmark agreement would “send cash and jobs pouring into the U.S. and into North America,” arguing that his use of tariffs was the reason a deal was secured.
But the new agreement, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, is largely an update that brings the NAFTA deal into the digital age. It requires more auto production in North America in return for waived tariffs, modest increases to labor standards and local content requirements in the auto sector.
The pact still needs to be approved by Congress, no easy feat now that the Democrats have won back the House. Trump is trying to force its hand by pulling the U.S. out of the existing NAFTA.
It’s not just other heads of state like Xi or Trudeau who find themselves in the line of fire as Trump pushes his agenda. Top U.S. officials, including his own Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell, have also come under the gun. The central bank is independent and most other presidents have accepted this — at least in public — and have refrained from criticizing its rate-setting committee.
Dismayed with the Fed’s policy of continuing to wean the U.S. off years of record-low interest rates amid market volatility, the President promptly broke with tradition again and started making some quiet noise in July that he wasn’t thrilled.
By early October, he was taking no prisoners, telling reporters that the Fed was “making a mistake” by raising rates, adding that he thought the committee that sets rates and is led by Powell had “gone crazy.”
Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council and Trump’s top economic adviser, stepped in to try to defuse the situation, stressing on CNBC that the Fed is in fact independent.
“The president has his own views,” Kudlow said. “He’s stated them many times. There’s nothing new here as far as I can tell. We all know the Fed is independent. The President is not dictating policy to the Fed. He didn’t say anything remotely like that.”
Kudlow no doubt hoped to put the issue of the Fed’s independence to bed but couldn’t. The rhetoric got stronger and stronger, and by the end of the month, Trump answered “maybe” when the Wall Street Journal asked him if he regretted nominating Powell, but added that he wouldn’t fire him.
Soon the President was calling the Fed a bigger problem than China, while at the end of November he confirmed that he wasn’t happy with his selection of Powell as chairman.
The drama seems set to only increase as the administration enters its third year, with each new step announced and repackaged by tweets, breaking news alerts, deep background administration sources with their knives out, pundits galore and wall-to-wall coverage of all things Trump.
Policy is changing under Trump, as is the case with every president.
But the presidency and maybe the world order are being changed in significant ways as Trump adopts new norms.
Jack Ma, who founded Alibaba and at first urged patience as the Trump approach emerged, signaled the disillusion many in the global community felt. In September, Ma rescinded a promise that the Chinese e-commerce giant would create 1 million American jobs by helping small businesses join its platform. He said the promise was based on friendly cooperation and rational trade growth between the U.S. and China.
“The previous basis for trade has been undermined,” the billionaire said, noting trade should not be a weapon but “the propeller of peace.”
Ma said the U.S.-China trade war could ultimately outlive Trump’s presidency.
“It’s going to last long,” Ma said. “It’s going to be a mess. Maybe 20 years. I don’t think it will stop in 20 months or 20 days. It’s not about the trade war, it’s about the competition of two countries.”
And that competition might well be colored by Trump’s attention-grabbing hardline tactics for a generation or more.