The most politically damaging ways to hurt Trump in a trade war

Don’t look now.
Don’t look now.
Image: AP/Christophe Ena
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Although Donald Trump appears to relish the possibility of a global trade war, the rest of the world isn’t so keen. Following Trump’s recent suggestion that the US will impose tariffs on imported steel aluminum, both the European Union and Canada have announced, reluctantly but forcefully, that they will retaliate by slapping tariffs on certain US goods. “We can also do stupid,” said European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on German television.

Since this is not a fight they want, the goal of retaliatory measures by US trading partners is to inflict as much political damage on Trump as possible, while minimizing the actual disruption to trade. Juncker specifically mentioned tariffs on Harley-Davidsons, bourbon, and Levi’s blue jeans, products that are popular in Europe and manufactured in the home states of prominent Republicans. European Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmström says that tariffs on orange juice and peanut butter are also on the table, following a similar logic.

As mid-term Congressional elections loom in the US, the country’s major trading partners can use political leverage to amplify the effects of their actions. In a trade war, this is the equivalent of precision strikes against symbolic targets.

In the 2016 presidential election, Trump won six states by less than 5%: Michigan (0.2%), Pennsylvania (0.7%), Wisconsin (0.8%), Florida (1.2%), Arizona (3.6%) and North Carolina (3.7%). Putting Congressional candidates under pressure in these swing states this November, and tilting the scales of public opinion against Trump ahead of his 2020 re-election bid, gives a country a bigger bang for its buck (or tang on its tariff, if you will).

Quartz analyzed US trade data from the Census Bureau and found that for each of these states there is one product that would hit that state’s exports disproportionately hard, while disrupting international trade least.

1️⃣ Rear-view mirrors from Michigan: About $1.1 billion dollars of the product was exported from the state in 2017, or 72% all rear-view mirrors exported from the US, making it the state’s ninth most important export. Hitting this product with a tariff might have Trump looking over his shoulder.

2️⃣ Train engines from Pennsylvania: About $480 million of train engines were exported from the state in 2017, accounting for 80% of all US exports of the product. It was the state’s 11th most important export. The threat of a breakdown in sales of this product could get international trade back on track.

3️⃣ Battery waste from Wisconsin: The state exported nearly $300 million in battery waste and scraps last year, 42% of all US exports of the product. It was also this state’s 11th most important export. Draining exports of batteries might recharge trade negotiations.

4️⃣Fertilizers from Florida: Complex fertilizers are the state’s 5th most important export, worth almost $1.8 billion in 2017. Around three-quarters of America’s exports of this product come from the Sunshine State. A fertilizer tariff might grow Trump’s interest in coming to the negotiating table.

5️⃣ Copper ore from Arizona: Around 60% of the US’s exported copper ore comes from the southwest state. The $1.05 billion in foreign sales generated ranks third among Arizona’s most important exports. A copper tariff could really spark debate among Republicans—particularly given that there will be a competitive Senate race there in 2018.

6️⃣ Tobacco from North Carolina: In 2017, $640 million of unmanufactured tobacco was exported from the state58% of all of the US’s exports of the product. It is the state’s 9th most important export, and given its reliance on the trade Trump might think twice before doing something that would make it all go up in smoke.