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Remember when trade wars were “good, and easy to win”? President Donald Trump’s glib declaration has now been replaced by a new one, from his Senate surrogate, Lindsey Graham: Americans should “accept the pain” of Trump’s trade war with China.

That pain is felt largely (though not solely) by farmers — many of whom count themselves among Trump’s base. This president’s arrogance and incompetent handling of trade negotiations has put farmers in a lurch, while threatening the strong economy Trump likes to brag so much about. At this rate, Democrats could discover the 2020 election is “easy to win.”

Contrary to his claims, Trump’s decision to blow up America’s trade relationship with the world’s most populous country wasn’t forced by China’s trade practices. While those practices have been unfair, that’s an issue for the bargaining table, not the front lines of a trade war. Trump made a unilateral decision to start that war, based on his belligerent worldview that life is a zero-sum endeavor: For someone to win, someone else has to lose.

In fact, free trade at its best is a positive for all sides. That was certainly true for America’s farmers, who for years have supplied China with the soybeans and other crops it needs. It’s been a huge, stable market. But stability doesn’t impress this president. He prefers chaos. And now he has it.

Trump last year began imposing tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum, falsely declaring that China would have to “pay” those costs. But tariffs are paid by the importers — generally, American companies, who pass the cost onto American consumers — a fact Trump either didn’t understand or hoped Americans didn’t.

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In any case, even as prices of manufactured goods in the U.S. are rising as a result, China’s utterly predictable retaliatory tariffs are devastating American farmers. Total U.S. agricultural exports to China, which stood at $24 billion in 2014, fell to just over $9 billion last year, as those buyers turn to other countries for their crops. There’s a real danger that, once Trump’s trade war is finally over, those new trade relationships will have gelled, leaving U.S. farmers permanently frozen out.

As if to admit how damaging this policy has been, the administration has thrown $28 billion in financial aid at farmers — money American taxpayers also have to foot instead of Chinese markets. Even so, farm bankruptcies are sharply up.  

Trade wars aren’t good and, as America’s farmers and consumers are learning, there are generally no winners. Trump’s reelection strategy has been to take credit for economic growth he inherited; voters next year should make sure he also gets “credit” for the trade chaos created entirely on his watch.

-- St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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