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Trump's proposed auto tariffs would squeeze longtime allies

May 26, 2018

President Trump says America needs tariffs on foreign-made cars and trucks to safeguard our “national security.”

Really? How many pickups do the Russians sell in the United States? Zero.

How many cars do the industrious North Koreans and Iranians ship here? Zero.

And how many Chinese-brand cars sit in U.S. showrooms? Essentially zero.

Credit Daniel Howes / Detroit News

Donald Trump’s proposed auto tariffs aren’t a national security move against the country’s geo-strategic adversaries. They’re not “protecting” Detroit’s automakers, who are enjoying their most profitable run at home in 50 years.

The tariffs stunned the global auto industry this week into silence and enraged key foreign governments. That’s because they are a clumsy slap at America’s strongest allies and largest trading partners, a bullying Art of the Deal meets Tony Soprano statesmanship.

Who’d be hurt? Who knows?

As is now typical, Trump policy pronouncements take extreme positions and deliver lots of heat, but not much light. Details are scarce. Automakers stay publicly quiet while they privately scramble for answers just a day after El Presidente used Twitter to tease “Good News” for autoworkers.

Which ones, exactly? The union kind in strongholds like Michigan whose profit-sharing payouts partly depend on sales of Chinese-built Buick SUVs and Mexican-built pickups?

Or the non-union kind powering a network of German, Japanese and South Korean-owned plants stretching from the southeast to the Midwest and on to Toyota in Texas?

They’re as much the backbone of Trump Country as Michigan autoworkers, the kind of people who helped deliver Trump to the White House. Their dollars earned in South Carolina and Alabama are as green as those paid in Detroit and Flint.

How the fortunes of Trump’s Republican Party and his re-election can be helped by slapping fat taxes on foreign-made vehicles and parts is, well, unclear. So is the notion that higher cost parts and higher vehicle prices are good for consumers and the economy.

There’s no guarantee the brave new world conjured by the president and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross would be the worker's paradise they envision, especially not for the 130,000 people working for foreign automakers down South.

They’re Americans, too. They vote. Their employers produce the majority of vehicles bought by American consumers.           

Folks who understand the industry a wee bit better than the president reel at the possibilities here: tariffs on GM’s Mexican-built pickups but not Toyotas from Texas; levies on Ford’s all-new Focus coming from China and Fiat Chrysler’s Pacifica minivan from Canada, but not Honda Accords from Ohio.

Confused doesn't begin to describe what could happen, if anything happens at all. The Trump trade record so far is a whole lot of really big talk and not much to show for it. The battle with China is in neutral because the White House needs help in North Korea. Canada and Mexico are showing they aren’t pushovers – and the president isn’t happy about it.

None of this will change overnight, except for sentiment: For America to win, apparently everyone else needs to lose, big.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.