But the Chinese appear to have read the delay as a sign of weakness. This week they announced more tariffs, infuriating the president. Since backing off didn’t work, he decided to escalate today. And that’s what’s so nerve-racking for the markets: His trade policy no longer appears to be self-limiting. In fact, it could be self-reinforcing, where tariffs cause damage and the president tries to “fix” the damage with more tariffs.
It’s also worth considering the possibility that we have gotten too far down the trade-war road for the president to unwind the problems he’s caused. To the extent there are signs of weakness in the domestic economy, they are largely on the producer side. The consumer sector still looks decent. But tariffs and uncertainty over future tariffs have already discouraged businesses from producing and investing. And China has less reason to participate in a de-escalation than they did a year ago, since they can just ride out the next year and hope to be facing a new, less-hostile president. As Jonathan Chait notes, Xi Jinping doesn’t have to worry about reelection like Trump does.
With a China less willing to back down and a trade war maybe too far along to stop, the president is backed into a corner. He may feel he can’t save the economy by folding. And so he may follow his instinct — one of the few consistent policy views he has expressed for decades — that protectionism is good for the economy, and that despite what the markets and his advisers are telling him, trade wars are good and easy to win and more tariffs and more disruption will only mean more winning for the U.S.