Trump’s Trade Wars Aren’t Over Yet, and You’re Still Losing

Cleveland-Stevenson "Tariff Reform" Portrait Handkerchief, 1892. Cornell University Collection of Political Americana. Public domain.
Cleveland-Stevenson “Tariff Reform” Portrait Handkerchief, 1892. Cornell University Collection of Political Americana. Public domain.

In 2018, telling us that “trade wars are good, and easy to win,” then-US-president Donald Trump imposed 15-25% tariffs (versus the previous rate of 10% and the average US tariff of 1.6%) on various Chinese goods, ranging from “dental cements and other dental fillings” to “Trout, fresh or chilled, excluding fillets, other meat portions, livers and roes.”

China wasn’t the only target.  Trump also imposed a 20% tariff on Canadian lumber.

Turns out (as if we didn’t already know from previous experiences) that trade wars are bad and nearly impossible to “win,” if “winning” means making the citizens of the country imposing tariffs more prosperous.

Sure, SOME people — the owners of, and some of the workers in, the industries Trump claimed to be “protecting” — came out ahead. But everyone else lost.

Trump’s tariffs aren’t the only reasons that the stuff you buy (especially stuff made of steel or wood) is more expensive now than in 2018. But they’re among those reasons.

Four months into his presidency, Joe Biden seems disinclined to roll Trump’s tariffs back and bring these ruinous trade wars to an end.

Why? Because in one key area, Trump and Biden were competing for the same “voter base.” That area is the Rust Belt, and the base is industrial labor. Trump won the 2016 election on the back of what we used to call “Reagan Democrats.” Like Reagan, Trump carried those states by promising to bring jobs “back” from abroad. And this has always been part of Biden’s pitch as well, a pitch he’s used to bring organized labor in on his side in every campaign for office he’s ever run.

Yes, Trump and Biden both pretend that it’s  “China,” not you, paying those tariffs.

But according to Moody’s Investors Service, more than 90% of the tariffs on “China” are actually absorbed by US importers of Chinese goods in the form of higher prices. And guess who those importers are passing the price increases onto?

You, that’s who.

Every extra penny you shell out for every good you buy in which tariffs are involved is essentially a campaign contribution to whichever politician keeps (or promises to keep) those tariffs in place. That includes domestically produced goods whose makers can jack up their prices because tariffs raised their foreign competitors’ costs.

Tariffs are the domestic equivalent of foreign economic sanctions, which in turn are the economic equivalent of war. No, not war on “China.” War on you.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.