Trump Would Crush the Winners of the U.S. Economy

Bloomberg View , May 24, 2016

Donald Trump says it all the time: “We don’t win anymore.” If you got all your economic news from the presumed Republican nominee, you’d think U.S. businesses hadn’t added any new jobs or accomplished anything worthwhile since sometime in the Johnson administration. Americans nowadays, he keeps suggesting, are total losers.

While Trump’s rhetoric denigrates the achievements of U.S. companies and their millions of employees, his specific proposals are worse. They reveal a vision of the good economy as static, uninnovative and controlled from the White House. President Trump’s America is, despite the rhetoric, an economy with no place for winners.

Start with the candidate’s pettiest proposal: his not-so-veiled threat to unleash antitrust regulators against Amazon to punish CEO Jeff Bezos, who owns for The Washington Post, for the newspaper’s negative coverage of his campaign. To serve his personal agenda, Trump would rewrite U.S. antitrust doctrine. Forget protecting consumers from cartels; he would instead protect businesses from competition. And he would side with foreign governments against an American winner.

Like Google and Facebook, Amazon is under attack by European antitrust regulators. If Trump were really the economic nationalist he plays on TV, he would be defending these U.S. stars. But in his picture of the economy, these companies simply don’t count, perhaps because they weren’t around during his 1980s business heyday. Trump is neither pro-market nor pro-business, the usual Republican choices. He’s just pro-Trump.

He’s also oblivious to most U.S. success stories. On just about any list of excellence -- the most admired companies, the most valuable brands, the world’s supply-chain leaders -- U.S. enterprises dominate. Nike has even surpassed long-time champion Louis Vuitton as the world’s most valuable apparel brand, a triumph for American culture as well as a U.S. business. The chemists coming up with new products at 3M or Procter & Gamble are no more important to Trump than the FedEx and UPS drivers delivering packages, the longshoremen offloading cargo at the ports of Long Beach and Charleston, the animators creating new films for Pixar, or the buyers finding bargains for T.J. Maxx. Whether you work for a U.S. company or a foreign company with U.S. operations, if you’re a successful player in a global supply chain, you simply don’t exist to him.

This is a candidate who promised to bring big steel back to Pittsburgh without considering why it disappeared. In Trump’s version of the economy, the only threat to established industries comes from diabolical foreigners and stupid U.S. trade negotiators. (Never mind that Chinese steelmakers already face nearly 500 percent punitive tariffs for corrosion-resistant products, with more tariffs for other types of steel potentially on the way.) He can’t imagine disruption that comes from changing demand or better ideas.

In Trump’s America, there were no minimills reinventing American steel, and taking market share from the old stalwarts, by recycling scrap into lower-cost, increasingly valuable products. In Trump’s America, there were no auto companies lightening their cars by reducing the amount of steel they contain -- no Ford betting big on aluminum trucks, certainly nobody thinking about carbon fiber. And, of course, in Trump’s America nobody minds that raising the price of steel hurts every U.S. company that uses it, be it a construction firm or a medical-instrument maker, and every consumer who buys from them.

The candidate’s promise to slap a 35 percent tariff on Carrier air conditioners and parts made in Mexico reveals the same blind spot. Every U.S. company buying HVAC equipment for its office, factory or server farm (not to mention Americans cooling their homes, hospitals, churches and schools) would be hurt. In the hope of recreating a bygone ideal of what “winning” looks like -- 1950s industrial production protected from global competition -- Trump would punish the actual winners in the U.S.

Bemoaning “today’s reactionary politics” a decade ago, Brink Lindsey observed in the New Republic that “the rival ideologies of left and right are both pining for the ’50s. The only difference is that liberals want to work there, while conservatives want to go home there.” As a Republican candidate, Trump has upended that distinction, largely jettisoning social conservatism in favor of a nostalgic economic view that ignores, denigrates or actively attacks the sources of strength, and jobs, in the U.S. economy.

Both supporters and critics have likened Trump to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, “the form of the Destructor,” in Ghostbusters. It’s an apt comparison. He’s oblivious to the life he’s crushing as he bumbles around.