Dear Commons Community,
Michelle Goldberg in her column today reviews Donald Trump’s tariff deal with Mexico that was announced last Friday. Entitled Congratulations on Fixing the Border, Mr. President! Should we pretend that Donald Trump made a real deal with Mexico?, Goldberg exposes the phony theater that Trump provided on a deal that was basically made months ago. Here is an excerpt:
“Which brings us to Trump’s recent deal — or “deal” — with Mexico. Once again, Trump made a series of unhinged threats against another country, leading to high-stakes diplomacy, and the announcement of a breakthrough. Once again, chest-beating conservatives jeered at Democrats for refusing to concede that Trump’s belligerence had borne fruit. Once again, when the details were revealed, it became obvious that Trump had accomplished very little of any substance. And once again, Trump has created a situation where it’s hazardous for his opponents to say too much about his incompetence.
On Friday, as the clock ticked down to Trump’s threatened imposition of 5 percent tariffs on Mexican goods, the two countries announced a last-minute deal. The U.S. would hold off on imposing the levies, and Mexico would take action to deter Central American migrants. For a moment, it looked as if Trump had cowed America’s neighbor with his madman foreign policy.
But giving Trump the benefit of the doubt is almost always a mistake. The president had claimed, using the floridly Stalinesque language we’ve all had to become accustomed to, that Mexico had agreed to “IMMEDIATELY BEGIN BUYING LARGE QUANTITIES OF AGRICULTURAL PRODUCT FROM OUR GREAT PATRIOT FARMERS!” This appears to be untrue. In fact, as The New York Times reported on Saturday, the deal consisted “largely of actions that Mexico had already promised to take in prior discussions with the United States.”
Months ago, Mexico consented to expanding a program in which migrants seeking asylum in the United States wait in Mexico while their claims are adjudicated, and to deploying more of its national guard to block migrants. It looks as if negotiators of the deal made on Friday simply ramped up the scale of these agreements to give Trump a face-saving way to back down from tariffs that threatened the American economy as well as the Mexican one.
As it became clear — at least to those outside the Fox News bubble — how little Trump had achieved, he grew even more splutteringly incoherent than usual. “Mexico was not being cooperative on the Border in things we had, or didn’t have,” until the deal, he wrote in one tweet. Trump went on to claim that Mexico had made further, secret concessions that would be revealed at a later date, which Mexico’s foreign minister denied. (Some have reported that Trump was referring to a potential regional pact on asylum that would include Central and South American countries and the United Nations, which Mexico said it could be open to discussing.)
All this was just the latest demonstration that, personal branding to the contrary, the president is terrible at making deals. What he’s good at is what might be called deal theater — made-for-TV melodramas with self-generated crises, over-the-top demands, and suspenseful arbitrary deadlines. The point of these exercises isn’t to solve a problem, but to pacify Trump with the illusion that he is winning so that he doesn’t feel the need to break anything.
The question for everyone else is whether to play along, because Trump is less dangerous if he thinks Mexico has submitted. Until now, the president has regularly stoked his nativist base by treating the humanitarian emergency at the border as a security threat. Now he has an interest in exaggerating the degree to which the problem has been solved, just as he now plays down North Korea’s nuclear capabilities rather than admit his own failure.
Facing widespread mockery for his Potemkin deal, Trump tweeted on Monday that if Mexico’s legislature fails to enact the provisions of its purported secret agreement with the U.S., the tariffs will go into effect. There’s an implicit threat here: Don’t provoke him. If he doesn’t get the headlines he wants, there’s no telling what he might do.”
Goldberg has Trump’s number!