We don’t do politics like we used to. Exhibit A would be President Trump and his trade policies. Exhibit B would be Arkansas’ junior senator.
Trump won the presidency as a Republican despite counteracting some long-held Republican beliefs, particularly about trade.
Republican officeholders have been internationalist free-traders, even while many of their voters weren’t. In many cases, those voters stuck with Republicans, or started voting for them, because of cultural issues like guns and abortion.
But now Trump has come along and spoken to their economic anxieties as well – by initiating a trade war with China, and by making illegal immigration his primary issue.
The trade war has alarmed many Republicans and people who support Republicans.
Meanwhile, Trump has gotten no credit from Democrats even though his trade policies arguably address some of their concerns. True, the tariffs will increase the prices lower-class and middle-class Americans pay for basic goods. But the global trading system also has shrunk American manufacturing and driven a stake through the heart of labor unions, once a powerful Democratic constituency. China is an authoritarian regime that steals American intellectual property, doesn’t play fair, and doesn’t respect human rights, which should concern us all. There’s even an environmentalist case to be made for increasing tariffs if they actually bring some manufacturing home, which they may not do much. I trust our factories to be cleaner than theirs.
If President Obama had raised tariffs on Chinese goods, it would have been cheered by some of the same Democrats who so bitterly oppose Trump. The Republicans now grudgingly supporting Trump, meanwhile, would be aghast.
But that’s politics these days.
So now let’s talk about Sen. Tom Cotton, who fully supports Trump’s trade war.
This is despite the fact that the Americans most hurt so far are some of Cotton’s constituents – particularly soybean farmers. Arkansas Farm Bureau President Randy Veach told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that Arkansas agriculture is facing a “slow disaster” with soybeans down “$2 below the break-even price.”
The trade war with China isn’t the only reason for this; the weather also has been a factor. But it’s a big reason.
Powerful groups like the Farm Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce are firmly opposed to the tariffs. Walmart certainly doesn’t want to see a trade war, which will disrupt its processes and raise prices.
If politics were practiced the way it used to be, an Arkansas senator would hesitate to oppose these entities. A former president from Arkansas would say he feels the farmers’ pain.
But politics isn’t really practiced that way these days. It’s now more about tribal politics than anything else. In Arkansas, Cotton is on the right tribe – the Republican one. He’s offended no one in his party with his stances on cultural issues. He faces no real threat in his re-election campaign. The political damage will be limited.
A former soldier, Cotton sees the trade war as he might have seen a military mission. There’s an objective to be reached, and there might be some regrettable but acceptable losses along the way.
That’s how he explained it during an appearance Monday on “CBS This Morning” to promote his book, “Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery.” The book is about the Army’s Old Guard, where he once served. He was paid more than a $500,000 advance for the book, according to Politico, which is a lot, but it’s selling well. Trump gave it a major plug on Twitter Tuesday.
Asked about the tariffs, Cotton said, “I think they’ll ultimately hurt the Chinese more than they will Americans, in part because Chinese companies and their government have been cheating the United States for so long. There will be some sacrifice on the part of Americans, I grant you that. But I also would say that sacrifice is pretty minimal compared to the sacrifices that our soldiers make overseas, that our fallen heroes who are laid to rest in Arlington make that I write about in ‘Sacred Duty.’”
That’s a pretty dispassionate answer. It’s certainly not “I feel your pain.” And it’s not what some powerful groups in Arkansas want to hear.
But I’m not sure powerful groups are as powerful as they once were. We don’t do politics like we used to.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.