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The forever trade war

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty

Historians say President Trump is a symptom of the anti-establishment turn in global politics, not its cause. Therefore, the populism that has erupted across the U.S. and Europe will go on or die — independent of what happens to him.

But what about the global trade war, which seems to be wholly Trump-driven? Experts tell Axios that it only appears that way: Protectionism, they say, is now part of the populist zeitgeist — and will outlast Trump.

Driving the news: In statements today, Beijing said it will immediately retaliate if Trump proceeds with a vow yesterday to impose tariffs on another $200 billion in Chinese imports, bringing the total to $250 billion. The Chinese have said that, if Trump proceeds next week as threatened, it will retaliate with tariffs on some 5,200 types of U.S. imports worth another $60 billion, for a total of $110 billion.

We previously reported that the trade war with China could last a year or longer. Now experts say the war will be larger and endure for an unknown period of time.

  • "My view is that Trump has accelerated and amplified latent anti-trade and anti-globalization populist forces. And I think this represents a systemic break with the past 75 years," says Gary Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. 
  • "Trump’s successor is unlikely to go back to the postwar model of American leadership of the world economic system along liberal free trade and investment lines," says Hufbauer.
  • Edward Alden of the Council on Foreign Relations agrees: "It’s clear we are never going back to the status quo pre-Trump. Congress and the administration are going to need to fundamentally rewrite their relationship on trade, not try to revive the old rules. And the WTO will either need to be refashioned or it will die."

If there’s any chance for a return to the pre-Trump system, it’s this: "[T]he polls suggest that younger American voters are generally quite pro-free trade and see the benefits of globalization," says Alden. "So I think the protectionist moment we are seeing will be shorter rather than longer. But a lot of damage could be done in that short time."