One dark, cold night in 2016, Donald Trump made a promise to 6,000 chanting fans and potential voters who had come to see him speak in an unheated, dirt floor rodeo hall in Pendleton, South Carolina.
“We’re going to make America great again. We’re going to make it rich. We’re going to bring our jobs back from China and Mexico.”
With no trace of irony or equivocation, Trump spoke of the humiliation that international trade deals, poorly done, had brought to Americans in general and South Carolinians in particular. Never mind that South Carolina’s economy was humming thanks to thousands of new jobs in the state at foreign-owned plants like the BMW factory up the road in Spartanburg. And forget about the fact that the state’s leaders, like nearly all politicians in the South, had made attracting international businesses, including with steep tax breaks, a top priority.
For Trump and the men and women in his audience who had been laid off from the nearby textile mills that once fueled the local economy, trade was the cause of their economic struggles — not the solution to them — and Donald Trump was going to do something about it.
Watch: Trump’s Impulsiveness Could Get in the Way of His Border Wall Promise
“We close up factories and Mexico opens factories. What the hell are we doing? Folks, it’s not going to happen anymore.”
With that, Trump made a promise to the voters in the South and across the country that he would turn the tables on foreign competitors. Days later, he won the state’s GOP primary on his way to a general election victory thanks, in large part, to the tough-on-trade promises he made to his voters in the process.
And last week, Trump delivered for his people with a sweeping, unfinished, potentially damaging plan to levy a 25 percent tariff on foreign steel and a 10 percent tariff on foreign aluminum brought into the U.S.
The reaction from conservatives who have long championed international trade was swift and merciless. The Wall Street Journal on Thursday called Trump’s tariff proposal “the biggest policy blunder of his Presidency” and warned the proposal would inadvertently punish American workers and undermine his tax and regulatory reforms.
In states where Trump won with his MAGA hats and promises of good times ahead, editorial boards warned of possible retaliation against locally made products. Just before Trump announced the specifics, The Detroit News cautioned that the tariffs meant to protect American steel and aluminum would hurt U.S. automakers by adding hundreds if not thousands of dollars to a car’s sticker price.
As far back as July, The Courier-Journal in Louisville raised the possibility that Kentucky bourbon could suffer even from the mere talk of tariffs, since exports account for a significant portion of distillers’ profits. Trump’s “effort to protect one segment of the economy can harm others,” the editorial board wrote.
Economists also predicted more harm than good from Trump’s blanket tariffs, which his administration said could be imposed on all imports without exception, and which Trump later tweeted could be used in renegotiating a new, more favorable North American Free Trade Agreement.
“Putting tariffs on steel and aluminum imports is going to raise prices on those products and is just going to end up costing jobs elsewhere,” Bill Hauk, a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of South Carolina, told Charleston’s Post and Courier. “I don’t see how this benefits the economy as a whole or even the manufacturing industry.”
Even members of Trump’s Republican Party were strategizing Monday about how to stop Trump in his tracks on trade if he seems willing to implement the tariffs he announced last week. “We are extremely worried about the consequences of a trade war and are urging the White House to not advance this plan,” Speaker Paul Ryan’s spokeswoman AshLee Strong said.
But if Trump supporters from South Carolina and across the country are going to listen to anybody in this standoff, it’s not an editorial board and it’s not an economist at a university and it’s certainly not a congressional leader. While Trump’s approval rating in the latest Winthrop University poll of South Carolina voters was 42 percent, his approval rating was exponentially higher than that of Congress, which limped in at 11 percent.
Instead, Trump voters are going to listen to their own experience. For some that includes being laid off from a mill in South Carolina and watching their jobs get sent overseas. And if history is any guide, they’re going to listen to one of the few politicians who acknowledge the pain that globalization brings along with its benefits — and that’s Donald Trump.
I was at the rodeo hall where Trump spoke that night in 2016, and as I left I talked to Pam Grant, a woman in her 50s. She had come to see Donald Trump, the television personality, and left thinking she had seen Donald Trump, the next president.
“I just think he’s amazing. He’s connecting to the people. He sees Americans are struggling and he wants to help,” she said, adding, “He’ll do what he says he’ll do.”
No matter the realities, no matter the consequences, delivering on his promise to fight back on trade for the people who put him in office seems to be the only goal Trump has in this potential trade war. So for him, that war has already been won.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.