In a first move toward enforcing his “America First” campaign promise, and days before his first State of the Union address in which he promoted a "strong, safe and proud America,” President Donald Trump approved tariff hikes on two foreign imports: solar panels made in China and washing machines from South Korea. It’s a move that he said would “protect American jobs” by increasing the cost of foreign products, thus favoring American companies.
The 30-percent tax increase on solar panels stunned environmentalists. Howard Crystal, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, told the Washington Post that “this profoundly political move will make solar power more expensive for everyday Americans while propping up two failing, foreign-owned companies.”
The problem is that “everyday Americans” aren’t rushing to install solar panels on their roofs. For one, the average upfront cost of retrofitting a home for solar is absurdly high—somewhere between $10,000 and $30,000. Of the issues voters cared about in 2016, 84 percent noted the economy, compared to just 52 percent who picked the enviornment, according to Pew Research. It would seem the poorer the individual, the less likely they are to care about solar power. The same can be said about pricey washing machines.
The media can’t seem to understand this, however. Following the announcement of the new tariffs, Slate accused Trump of “getting between Americans and their washing machines.” Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle, a libertarian, penned a piece called “Ode to a Washing Machine,” in which she writes “the impact on American consumers of higher washing machine prices is immensely greater than the impact of higher solar panel prices.”
In other words, the media responded to Trump’s tariffs by turning the washing machine into a strange wedge issue, anchored by misleading facts. While data from the United States Census Bureau suggests more than 85 percent of American households have a washing machine, that number is far lower for the 40 million Americans who live below the poverty threshold. The average lifespan of a washing machine is also pretty damn long, about a decade. Despite their ubiquity in the household, prices are still high, ranging from $200 to $2,000 per machine, with energy-efficient machines averaging on the higher end. So really, how often are working class and poor Americans buying these things new?
Ninety percent of poor Americans hold the U.S. in high esteem, regardless of their financial struggles. Trump gets this.
I bring this up because, in reading the media’s bizarre response to Trump’s tariffs, I’ve been reminded, quite exhaustingly, of how little it understands the realities of being poor in America—a population the federal government defines as either households below the current poverty threshold or the bottom 20 percent of wealth-earners. These are Americans who read Bloomberg about as often as they invest in stocks.
Dissecting criticism of Trump’s tariffs is necessary because it reveals exactly why the media has yet to find a way to counterpunch Trump in the arena of populism, which for the president amounts to convincing poor people he’s their savior. Regardless of age, race or gender, poor Americans are more patriotic than any other class, according to survey and poll data published in Francesco Duina’s Broke and Patriotic: Why Poor Americans Love Their County. In his budget blueprint for “America First,” Trump’s first goal of 2018 is to "provide one of the largest increases in defense spending…” According to Duina, 80 to 90 percent of poor Americans hold the U.S. in high esteem, regardless of their immense financial struggles. Trump instinctually gets this. Ironically, Hillary Clinton beat him in counties where poverty levels were higher. But journalists haven’t been able to sell this as well as Trump has buried it.
Without laundering his sketchy “America First” tactics, it’s important to acknowledge that his solar and washer tariffs have had their advocates, mainly Fox News—which reported he was “right to impose tariffs”—but also former Vice President Al Gore. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, however, and over-explainer Rachel Maddow opted to forego any click-worthy rejoinders on the topic while anchor Stephanie Ruhle reverted to saying what makes struggling Americans hate-watch MSNBC:
Let’s be serious about this, one of the reasons many of these American jobs left is Americans don’t want those jobs. Are they going to want them now?
For Trump, whose marketing IQ is above his critics, slapping tariffs on humdrum industries like washers and solar allow him to spin so-called “trade wars” into something more American and optimistic. When U.S.-based manufacturer Whirlpool announces its creating 200 jobs in swing state Ohio following Trump’s tariffs—a negligible number considering how many jobs may be lost at LG and Samsung—it’s still a public-relations victory for Trump.
In the meantime, his critics remain bewildered and lost, incapable of firing back when Trump reconfigures facts, such as claiming his tariffs will force Samsung to accelerate its plans to create hundreds of jobs in its new South Carolina plant or pressure LG to jumpstart its new plant in Clarksville, Tennessee. Reuters recently interviewed the city’s mayor, who expressed concern that the tariffs could actually hinder the plant’s opening.
When I called a Trump supporter who lives with his parents in southern Illinois, he didn’t even know about the tariffs. When I told him he might be paying $50 more for a foreign-made washing machine, he told me in his town, they junk washing machines together or buy them used from locals. Trump’s war on washing machines didn’t even phase him.
This is the kind of person the mainstream media can’t wrap its head around. It’s why it can’t reach people who celebrate when Chrysler says its moving production of Ram trucks from Mexico to Warren, Michigan, creating 2,500 American jobs on the shaky flatbed of “America First.” And even though Trump is paradoxically destroying jobs elsewhere—the Solar Energy Industries Association predicts the tariff hike could cost as many as 23,000 domestic jobs—it’s all fake news to his most loyal supporters, who see his tariffs as a fulfillment of a promise to protect American industry, regardless of the collateral damage it will cause our American pastime of doing laundry.