President Donald Trump has a lot of power to make things happen in this country. He can move economic markets with a single tweet. He can destroy a Republican’s political career on a whim (see “Flake, Jeff”). He can declare national emergencies – even if they aren’t actual national emergencies.
But being president does have its limits. The job is president, not dictator, after all.
And again on Friday morning, Trump showed he doesn’t totally grasp that crucial difference – as he took to Twitter to protest $75 billion in new tariffs imposed by China. Tweeteth Trump (bolding is mine):
“Our Country has lost, stupidly, Trillions of Dollars with China over many years. They have stolen our Intellectual Property at a rate of Hundreds of Billions of Dollars a year, & they want to continue. I won’t let that happen! We don’t need China and, frankly, would be far better off without them. The vast amounts of money made and stolen by China from the United States, year after year, for decades, will and must STOP. Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China, including bringing our companies HOME and making your products in the USA. I will be responding to China’s Tariffs this afternoon. This is a GREAT opportunity for the United States. Also, I am ordering all carriers, including Fed Ex, Amazon, UPS and the Post Office, to SEARCH FOR & REFUSE all deliveries of Fentanyl from China (or anywhere else!). Fentanyl kills 100,000 Americans a year. President Xi said this would stop - it didn’t. Our Economy, because of our gains in the last 2 1/2 years, is MUCH larger than that of China. We will keep it that way!”
The language Trump used sounds pretty official, right? “Hereby ordered!” It makes me think of a king reading a proclamation off of a long scroll!
Here’s the thing: Donald Trump can’t order American business to do anything. There’s a reason the business world is known as the “private sector” – because it’s not owned or controlled by the government (aka the “public sector.”) We don’t have state-run industry (or media). The President of the United States can’t “order” privately held business to do, well, much of anything.
Now, that doesn’t mean that Trump can’t have any influence. Every CEO will be apprised of Trump’s tweets – if they haven’t already been – and some, in an effort to cozy up to Trump or because they agree with him about the threat posed by China, will look for ways to divest in the country.
But that’s very different than companies having to look for alternatives to China because the President said so. They, uh, don’t.
It’s not immediately clear – to me at least – if Trump understands that. Throughout his presidency, he has marveled at the total control that authoritarian rulers – in places like Russia and China – exert over their countries and publicly wished he had control like that. He has shown a willingness to trample on the traditional diving lines between the White House and the Justice Department, expressing frustration that the attorney general and his staff aren’t pursuing the investigations Trump wants them to. And on and on it goes. He publicly bullies the Federal Reserve chairman for not lowering interest rates fast enough.
What is clear is why Trump is doing this: He’s attempting to exert control – even though he has no actual authority to do so – over a situation that he feels he is losing control of.
Remember that Trump famously/infamously tweeted in March 2018 that trade wars are “good, and easy to win.” The ongoing trade war with China has been anything but. It has led to a yo-yoing stock market and is now fueling growing concerns that the hard-chugging economy was showing signs of slowing, with some analysts seeing signs of a potential recession on the horizon.
Trump knows that if the economy goes south – or is perceived to be stumbling – he is in deep, deep trouble in 2020. The economy’s strength has always been Trump’s best chance of winning a second term in spite of his low approval numbers overall. But in a new AP-NORC poll, more people disapprove of Trump’s handling of the economy than approve, a shift that, if it continues, spells disaster for the incumbent.
He also knows there are limited number of levers he can pull to change things. It’s why he is throwing absolutely everything against the wall – like a payroll tax cut! (Or maybe not!) And why he puts out tweets like he did on Friday in which he tries to assert control over something on which he has no formal control. It just makes him feel better, more in control of a situation that, in reality, he isn’t in control of at all.
In Trump’s world, the illusion of control is better than the acknowledgment of his relative powerlessness to force China (or American business) to his will. But just because he’s hiding behind that illusion doesn’t mean anyone else needs to.