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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Shakedown Nation 

by tristero

Why did Trump start a trade war? The answer seems to me blatantly obvious. The tariffs and trade war are basically a big shakedown aimed not at foreigners but at Americans.

It goes like this: the tariffs, by instituting an international trade war with our country, were intended to create hardship not only abroad but more importantly, in the US. This provides the Trump administration a splendid opportunity to offer "protection" to its loyal supporters. Protection could come in the form of exemption from the tariffs for specific business sectors or in the form of cash payoffs to offset the financial burden. A shakedown racket depends upon creating problems for those to be shaken down. And, as the hardships deepen, the protections Trump provides his supporters will become all that more valuable.

As for those who don't support Trump? The administration can simply respond, "No can do. There's a trade war going on. Blame Europe for your problems. Blame Obama for the lousy deals that forced us to institute tariffs in the first place. It's not our fault."

That's it. The trade war really isn't about international trade. Of course, if Trump can shake down some foreigners, too, hey, why not? But they're not the primary marks for the grift. This is really about establishing Shakedown Nation, where supporters are openly protected and all other Americans face ruination. This is an attempt to accumulate and maintain political power here at home.

(Of course, the real beneficiaries are not the recipients of the "protection" but those providing the  "protection." In this case, the benefits to the "protectors" — Trump officials — are both political power and money.)

The major challenge the Trump administration faces in creating Shakedown Nation is to properly calibrate the amount of protection. It's essential that the protection never be complete, making those "protected" ever more desperate to prove their loyalty in order to get what they can from a too-small pool of goodies. But it's also important that the protection not be so inadequate as to create an organized revolt.

That is exactly what we are seeing. As Zippy Duvall (Holy Dickens, Zippy Duvall???) of the American Farm Bureau Federation said in the article, "We are grateful for the administration’s recognition that farmers and ranchers needed positive news now, and this will buy us some time. This announcement is substantial, but we cannot overstate the dire consequences that farmers and ranchers are facing.” In other words, with $12 billion, the Trump administration hit the shakedown sweet spot perfectly. The article points out, the $12 billion offered to farmers is neither peanuts nor enough to mitigate the problems. The amount is intended to create a scrambling to prove loyalty to Trump. It looks like they may need to provide more down the road, but that will just spur more expressions of gratitude... and more desperate begging.

"But wait a doggone minute!" you might object, "They're just not that smart. Everyone sees that this is a Trump-created problem in the first place! In fact, the article makes it very clear that Republicans are howling right and far right about the trade war and explicitly blaming Trump. There's no plan at all, let alone for a shakedown. This is just Trump being his stupid self, out of his league, blundering into major serious trouble." Here are two responses to this objection:

1. Attention-spans are short, the media are subverted, and the base loves Trump. In a month, all that recipients of the farm aid will see will be (some) cash handed out to them due to Donald Trump's largesse. They will gullibly watch Fox News while propagandists falsely assert that Obama was really responsible for the trade war (and the mainstream media will carefully parse the effects of Trump's grants on the Homeland). A large number of people will believe this. And congressional critics, facing Trump approval ratings among Republicans that hover between 85 and 90 fucking percent (!!), will shut up. Fast.

2. I never said they were smart. A shakedown racket is a really dumb idea that doesn't work for very long. But if you're dumb enough to think a shakedown is a good idea, you'd also be prone to thinking that a trade war with other nations is a terrific way to shake American businesses down.

Just as the separation of children from their mothers was both utterly immoral and fully intentional,* so  this trade war is utterly irresponsible and fully intentional. With immigration, the intent is to pander to Trump's base by restricting immigration. Shutting borders by placing children in cages is an incredibly stupid away to go about that but that's exactly what they did. With the trade war, the intent is to consolidate Trump's power in the US by creating loyalty to the Trump administration. And setting up a protection racket is just about the dumbest way imaginable to try to do so, but that is exactly what they are doing. Yes, indeed, these are incredibly stupid people.

In mainstream coverage, there are hints that the media understand a little bit about Shakedown Nation. In the Times article, the reporters note, "Agriculture Department officials said farmers could begin signing up to receive the federal money in September, just weeks before voters go to the polls." The coincidence is apparently not lost on the reporters. But journalists still insist on the charade of treating Trump's actions as "policy choices" instead of the grifts they really are.

Crucially, the media fail to understand that the trade war is only incidentally about international relationships. It's mostly about shoring up domestic support in the most thuggish way possible. Acting like a cheap crime boss in a bad remake of The Godfather is the only way Trump knows how to act. Before he's done, we'll be addressing him as Don Don.


*Rachel Maddow was quite right last month, that the Trump administration was counting on widespread outrage to publicize the caging of children. It was their way to send a signal to potential Hispanic immigrants (not Norwegian ones) that the Trump government is so incompetent you could literally lose your kid.