Video: President Trump’s ideas about trade seem to be stuck in the 17th century, says columnist Catherine Rampell. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)
For years, Donald Trump and right-wing pundits warned us about the War on Christmas. We should have listened.
Yes, they were mistaken about who would wage the assault. The anti-yuletide antagonist turns out to be neither Starbucks nor gay people nor the Obamas nor even the villainous American Civil Liberties Union.
In truth, Scrooge is Trump himself.
'Tis the quarter before holiday shopping season, and the president just announced tariffs on another $200 billion worth of Chinese goods, in addition to the $50 billion in products he imposed duties on over the summer.
The new tariffs could jack up prices on all sorts of standard Christmas purchases, including televisions, computers, mittens and knit hats. "Articles of apparel, of reptile leather" made the list, which could severely crimp the style of a certain former campaign chairman.
More to the point, Trump's tariffs could make Black Friday truly bleak.
That's true for the consumers whose wages are barely keeping up with inflation, and who don't have the spare change lying around to cover a 10- or 25 percent price hike if Trump's tariffs get tacked on to the cost of presents they plan to stash under the tree.
But it's also true for U.S. companies, including major American success stories such as Apple. The consumer products giant counts on holiday retail sales for about a third of its annual revenue. It has already warned investors that its watch, wireless headphones and Mac mini computer, among other products, might take a hit.
Trump's initial bah-humbug response was to suggest that Apple just start manufacturing all its products in the United States. Besides the impracticality of building, say, a $1 billion chip-fab plant in time for the holiday rush, this lazy response misses the big reasons firms have moved manufacturing abroad unrelated to tariffs: complicated economic factors including labor costs, matters of scale and global supply chains.
Facing a backlash, Trump checked his tariff list twice, so to speak, and removed a few categories that would cover some affected Apple products, such as smartwatches. But Apple fanboys shouldn't sleep snug in their beds just yet.
Trump has mused that his trade war may still be several sizes too small, like the original Grinch’s heart. As part of his airing of grievances, he’s threatening to slap import taxes on all $500 billion worth of stuff we currently purchase from China.
To give you a sense of the range of products involved here, consider the presents that Dr. Seuss' Grinch swiped from Whoville: "Pop guns! And bicycles! Roller skates! Drums! Checkerboards! Tricycles! Popcorn! And plums!"
At least three of those items (bicycles, tricycles, plums) are on the $200 billion list; the rest, with the possible exception of popcorn, would likely become more expensive if indeed Trump blanketed every Chinese import with new taxes. (Yes, Virginia, tariffs are indeed taxes.)
As expected, China has threatened to retaliate. But because we buy more from China than it buys from us, it will soon run out of U.S.-made products to strike with symmetric tit-for-tat tariffs.
Beijing has other means of fighting back, however. One way, according to the Wall Street Journal, might be by "restricting China's sales of materials, equipment and other parts key to U.S. manufacturers' supply chains."
In a sense, Beijing needn't bother.
According to data compiled by scholars at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, more than three-quarters of the China-specific tariffs that Trump has imposed or proposed so far are on intermediate and capital equipment that U.S. firms purchase, including some products for which China is the main supplier. This means Trump has effectively already restricted “China’s sales of materials, equipment and other parts key to U.S. manufacturers' supply chains.”
In other words, without being asked, Trump has been selflessly meting out China's proposed punishment for the United States — even though both countries will end up worse off as a result. It's like a garbled "Gift of the Magi," or something.
Perhaps Trump is merely trying to teach American consumers the True Meaning of the holiday season: that, as the Grinch himself learned, Christmas doesn't come from a store; it's about generosity, loving thy neighbor, peace on earth and goodwill toward men, etc.
Oh, who am I kidding? President “No Immigrants from S---hole Countries” hardly seems like a credible messenger for that.
Whatever comes of Trump's trade war in the months ahead, rest assured we'll all still get at least one Christmas present this year: loads and loads of coal. All American-made, of course.
Catherine Rampell is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post. She frequently covers economics, public policy, politics and culture, with a special emphasis on data-driven journalism. Before joining The Post, she wrote about economics and theater for the New York Times. firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell