The tariffs started slowly. In his first 18 months in office, Trump imposed new duties on less than 3 percent of Chinese imports. Since then he has ratcheted up coverage gradually, and in some cases he’s given importers time to bring in their goods before the tariffs hit.
The choice of which products to target and when has also softened the blow to American households. Earlier rounds of tariffs were mostly aimed at intermediate inputs, hidden from view. Companies faced with more expensive equipment or parts could choose to pass along their cost increase to consumers—or to accept lower profits or perhaps even push down wages.
More recent instances of Trump’s trade-war escalation will be much more difficult to swallow. For the first time, in September, tariffs will directly hit many items that American shoppers buy from Walmart or Amazon. The toughest times are still due to arrive, in December 2019. Trump decided to delay duties on toys, smartphones, and other consumer electronics until after the rush of this year’s holiday-shopping season.
Consumers, from their position of relative safety, have not screamed to stop the trade war. Moreover, even as prices increase more noticeably, they may remain sedate: They are notoriously impossible to mobilize politically.
It is perhaps more puzzling that America’s businesses have not put up a bigger fight, because they have borne the brunt of Trump’s tariffs.
Trump’s neutralization of the American corporate community began when he started the trade war in their name. The tariffs are supposedly in response to mistreatment of American companies by the Chinese authorities. That messaging campaign led some industry groups to praise the Trump administration’s tough treatment of China (though far fewer went so far as to endorse the tariffs).
Read: Trump’s trade war with China is already changing the world
The pushback has also been muted by the on-again, off-again, rhythm of Trump’s trade war, with near victories announced, and then unannounced, every few months. Whenever a deal seems imminent, hopes are raised that the tariffs are working, in the sense that they could extract meaningful concessions from the Chinese. Pushing Trump to get rid of them, in these moments, seems counterproductive—and the moments keep coming.
The president’s Twitter feed, meanwhile, has made clear the costs of public resistance. No one wants to be treated like General Motors was in late August, when Trump castigated the company for making cars for the Chinese market in China, or like Carrier and Harley-Davidson, which were the targets of earlier tirades.
Perhaps more important than rhetoric, the administration has set up an “exclusion” process after every round of duties—offering to at least temporarily exempt individual companies’ products from new tariffs. Firms have therefore had to choose between allocating their limited lobbying budgets to band with others and push back collectively—or go it alone for special treatment in the form of a product exclusion.