China shouldn’t bet on Trump’s voters deserting him when the trade war takes it toll

Robert Delaney says the Chinese trade war strategy of targeting states that voted for Trump with retaliatory tariffs ahead of the midterm elections may backfire - Trump’s voters love the controversy he generates and may flock to him again

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 July, 2018, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 July, 2018, 7:34pm

Now that the US-China trade war has darkened the doors of companies depending on the world’s most robust bilateral economic relationship, prognostication over how long this fight will last has begun.

Beijing is betting on a low threshold of pain among US voters in the country’s “red states”. The strategy makes sense at first blush. Target products made in states that voted for Donald Trump, pork and soybeans for example, and the president’s support will fall away.

The targets also include US ginseng, which comes from Wisconsin. The Midwestern state’s election night result in 2016 delivered a shock to the Democrats that many still haven’t recovered from. Hillary Clinton’s loss in a state that had not gone to a Republican presidential candidate since 1984 showed how badly voters there wanted a departure from politics as usual.

Beijing is hoping that a dose of economic pain will show these voters, and those in swing states, that Trump was the wrong solution to their grievances.


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The pressure caused by the loss of a lucrative export market will, the logic goes, lead to losses for Trump’s Republican party in November’s midterm elections, undercutting Trump’s ability to wage trade wars.

But what if Beijing is wrong? Chinese officials have already miscalculated by not realising how different the Trump White House is from every administration since Richard Nixon’s.

Every US president since the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between America and the People’s Republic has played by Beijing’s rules. Washington’s diplomats and the US Chamber of Commerce, mindful of the potential profits to be amassed in such a large marketplace, assumed that China would eventually level the economic playing field.

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Trump was the first US president to understand that Beijing would never follow through with significant economic reforms without a fight, and for this he deserves credit.

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Unfortunately, Trump undercut America’s odds in this conflict by alienating every traditional US ally and throwing into doubt security alliances that have for many decades underpinned American military strength and global economic growth.

Beijing understands this and is working to build better relations with key countries in every region, moves that may erode the United States’ position further if the trade war ends up being as protracted as some believe.

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China will need this strategy of international goodwill because, aside from misreading the White House, its leadership also underestimates the strength of Trump’s base, just as most American political pundits did in 2016.

Trump has maintained voter support not in spite of his tendency to shock people with new lows for political discourse – such as his constant skewering of fellow Republicans like decorated war veteran John McCain – and multiple scandals and investigations of the president and his associates. His support is stronger because of these things.

According to polling firm Gallup, Trump’s approval rating was 42 per cent at the end of June, up from 39 per cent at the end of 2017.

Aided by a hyper-partisan media landscape that did not exist a generation ago, Trump has turned American morality on its head. The successful inherit the earth, regardless of how the gains were achieved.

Traditional allies, who went along with Washington’s construction of the post-second-world-war global order, are angrily tossed aside over disagreements that could be resolved through quiet negotiations. Dictators and authoritarian governments are America’s new friends because they reflect Trump’s world vision.

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This is the “America first” era. Trump’s supporters can’t get enough of it, and if Beijing thinks they will abandon the Republicans en masse because of higher prices at Walmart, China’s leaders had better have a backup plan.

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Since the 1980s, white, working-class voters have consistently been more supportive of Republicans than Democrats even though the Republicans’ economic agenda – including union busting and public school funding cuts – has been at odds with working-class interests.

Trump will frame China’s targeted tariffs as an attack on America first, and his supporters are more likely to close ranks than change their political stripes.

And, as for Wisconsin, Foxconn is creating 13,000 jobs in the US$10 billion facility it is now building there, so lost ginseng sales might not matter.

Robert Delaney is the South China Morning Post's US bureau chief, based in New York