Donald Trump’s first international incident began, as many feared it would, with an injudicious early-morning tweet. Oh for those simpler times — you know, like, Wednesday — when press critics could naively suggest that the media ignore Trump’s more bizarre tweets, which, we were told, were meant to divert our attention from Trump’s dangerous actions.
The problem with this strategy is that Trump’s tweets are the action. The renowned counter-puncher rules by reaction — and often that reaction is based on action prompted by either an off-hand, poorly thought out, tweet-like campaign promise (build a wall that Mexico will pay for) or a tweet itself (saying he won the popular vote, which he lost by 2.8 million, “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally”).
So we find ourselves on the verge of a trade war with our third-largest trading partner, which we have backed into a corner. And we find our president saying he will launch an investigation into voter fraud that everyone, including him, knows does not exist, but that he has to investigate anyway because, yes, he has backed himself into a corner. The list is long, of course, and it seems to get longer with each passing day. And, note to self, as I write this, Trump hasn’t been in office a week. As the line goes, I think we’re gonna need a bigger boat.
Let’s begin with Mexico. A week before Trump’s scheduled meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Trump issued his executive order to start building the wall and another to crack down on undocumented immigrants. As you may have noticed, these orders basically pre-empted much of the agenda that Trump would have been discussing with Peña Nieto, who acted the only way he could. He said, for the millionth time, that Mexico wouldn’t pay for the wall — of course, it wouldn’t; remind me of the last time that Nation X built a wall and made Nation Y pay for it — and that he would defend the rights of Mexicans everywhere.
And so Trump tweeted: “If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.”
And so Peña Nieto did cancel.
And so, Trump, now faced with the obvious fact that Americans would have to pay $15 billion and probably more for an unnecessary and obnoxious wall, had to do something to save face. While speaking at a GOP congressional retreat, he trotted out the idea of a 20 percent tax on imports, which, he said, could be used to make Mexico pay for the wall. His press secretary, Sean Spicer, then explained how this might work.
And so the media ran with it, even though Trump apparently didn’t mean a tax just on Mexico imports but on all imports, and even though it wouldn’t in any way mean that Mexico was paying for the wall. Apparently, this is part of a House plan for tax reform, which would pay for reduced tax rates with an American-style tax system on goods crossing the border. Up until Thursday, Trump had said the plan was way too complicated, but he cited it anyway because, desperate, he had to cite something.
The problems here are not hard to find. Any kind of border tax would be a tax Americans pay for Mexican goods — the avocado tax, some call it. And if there is some kind of border tax on Mexican goods, Mexico might well put its own border tax on American goods.
Then there’s this: If Trump acted in some way to hurt the Mexican economy, it would hurt, well, the American economy. Not only because Mexican-American trade rings in at more than $500 billion annually, and as many as 5 million American jobs are tied somehow to this trade, but because a depressed Mexican economy would put renewed pressure on the border, where illegal immigration from Mexico has been rapidly falling. As presidents since at least Reagan have understood, a healthy Mexican economy is good for America. But as Trump once told the Wall Street Journal — the quote is cited today in a scathing WSJ editorial on the Trump amateur hour — he doesn’t really care about Mexico’s economy.
But because this is Trump and because the ideas were half-baked and because even a seemingly compliant GOP Congress isn’t entirely compliant, Spicer had to come out later to explain that this wasn’t actually the plan. It was just “one” option of a plan, or as Reince Priebus later explained, part of “buffet” of plans, although he didn’t mention whether carne asada was on the menu.
Of course the really discouraging thing here is that Mexico is among the least complicated foreign-policy issues facing Trump — but one that he has made unnecessarily difficult. Mexico is our ally, despite centuries pre-Trump American bullying. It has remained our ally even as Trump mischaracterized Mexican immigrants as rapists. It remained our ally even as Trump demeaned the born-in-America, Mexican-American judge. It will remain our ally even as Trump tries out the twitter tactics that worked so well for him during the campaign. But a border war? An America-First NAFTA renegotiation? A phone call to discuss the crisis, after which Trump complains that Mexico has “beat us to a pulp” in past deals? There may be limits.
Then there’s the really hard stuff. China. And Syria. And Russia. And Iran. And North Korea. And all the international alliances, all the trade agreements and climate agreements and dozens of others kinds of agreements. And on and on.
Who knows where it will all lead? But I can’t help imagining if Lewis Carroll was on twitter and needed just 140 characters to take us down the rabbit hole.
Photo illustration by DonkeyHotey via Flickr: Creative Commons