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Golf and Trump – The Implications for Global Trade

— November 7, 2019

Simply put, just like your round on the golf course with Trump, there’s only one winner. And it won’t be you. 

When trying to follow President Donald Trump’s perspective on trade, it would be wise to understand Trump’s devotion to the game of golf.

President Trump sees everything through the lens of golf. When he speaks, chances are you’ll catch him using a golf-related metaphor to prove his point.

In late December of 2018, the President tweeted about the Federal Reserve, “The Fed is like a powerful golfer who can’t score because he has no touch – he can’t putt!”

Trump’s trips to his golf courses as President have become commonplace as he has played roughly 200 rounds during his first term. Known as a proficient golfer who can swing a mean driver, Trump is identified by fellow playing partners as a highly competitive player on the links.

Golf has been Trump’s vehicle for personal wealth and a multitude of business deals. Now that trade deficits have taken center stage as America heads into the 2020 election, taking a look at how Trump behaves on the golf course offers insight into where these trade wars are headed for all of the global players.

Trade Talks on the Golf Course

President Trump made trade deficits with other countries as one of the focal points of his 2016 campaign. Once he took office, he installed Peter Navarro, who held a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard, as his director of trade and industrial policy. Navarro also held the title of director of the National Trade Council.

Navarro and Trump’s view of U.S. trade deficits merged into one central focus for the President’s first term. The duo believed that deficits were high because agreements like NAFTA had strangled the manufacturing sector in America, while countries like China rigged the game with currency manipulation, the continued theft of intellectual property, and other human rights violations such as sweatshop laborers.

While Navarro handled the numbers side of the equation, Trump crafted the message, usually while he was playing on one of his pristine golf courses.

Ocean Trails Reserve, Palos Verdes Nature Preserve and Trump National Golf Course. Image by Tracie Hall, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, no changes.
Ocean Trails Reserve, Palos Verdes Nature Preserve and Trump National Golf Course. Image by Tracie Hall, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, no changes.

When Trump started to rumble about trade with Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe joined the President for a round at Trump National Golf Club in northern Virginia. 

In May of 2019, Trump visited Japan, and Abe returned the favor by taking the President golfing in the hope of getting Trump to lift the aluminum and steel tariffs on his country.

In addition to the damage that Japan is facing from the U.S. tariffs, the country is also suffering as a bystander of the trade war between the United States and China. 

Japan’s exports have fallen by close to 5 percent over the first six months of 2019 due to the conflict.

PM Abe’s attempt at diplomacy via golf failed to move Trump on the suffocating tariffs. What Abe most likely discovered on the course is that Trump stops at nothing to win. 

How Trump Never Loses on the Golf Course

Legendary sports writer Rick Reilly recently wrote a book about the President’s exploits on the golf course titled Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump. In the book, Reilly outlines the win-at-all-costs philosophy Trump exhibits when he plays golf.

For Reilly and most golf lovers, golf is a game of honor. You play by the rules, keep a correct and honest score, and challenge yourself to grow and become better at the great game.

Throughout the book, Reilly uses anecdotal information from caddies, playing partners and others who have experienced a round of golf with the President to outline how Trump never adheres to Reilly’s golfing virtues.

Trump has been known to kick his golf balls from troublesome areas out onto the fairway, throw competitor’s balls off of the green, and not count his wayward shots into the water hazard when tallying his final score.

All of these golfing offenses would undoubtedly put a regular John Doe in golfing jail, but for the President, it is business as usual and, surprisingly, his playing partners knowingly accept this when going into their round.

As former professional golfer Brad Faxon told Reilly for the book, “You’ve heard so much about it, it’s almost like you want to witness it so you can tell the stories.”

So, you may be asking yourself, what does knowing this about Trump have to do with trade deficits?

Simply put, just like your round on the golf course with Trump, there’s only one winner. And it won’t be you. 

Where the Trade Discussion is Headed for Trump

If you believe that President Trump relies on the latest data when working on his trade strategy, you might be sadly disappointed.

When Gary Cohn took over as National Economic Council Director for the Trump administration, he commonly found the President distracted when discussing the finer points of the trade conversation according to Bob Woodward’s book, Fear: Trump in the White House.

According to Woodward, Cohn would routinely bring the President the latest figures from a variety of sources, including the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, otherwise known as JOLTS.

Cohn showed Trump that more and more people were less inclined to work in manufacturing when they could find employment in more hospitable environments such as office work. Cohn would back up his argument with numbers proving his point from the monthly JOLTS report.

The point of Cohn’s attempts to inform the president came from the opinion that a trade war would be damaging to the American economy.

In his mind, trade deficits were a good thing because America was becoming a service economy and therefore, spending less on goods because they were coming from other countries.

Trump didn’t agree with the figures or with Cohn’s theory. In Trump’s eyes, America was losing because the trade deficit scoreboard said so.

For Trump, There’s Only One Way to Proceed

When Trump plays golf, he always rides alone in his own cart. He speeds ahead of his playing group, hits balls out of turn and never, ever stops until his last putt on the 18th green.

The lesson is simple when you play with the President: My course. My rules. Luckily, his hotels allow pets to come over and take care of them well, but of course with an extra cost. So, if you don’t want to play with him or got bored, you can at least play with your dog in your room and stay for a while. 

When looking at the direction of where America is headed under Trump’s leadership with regard to trade deficits, it would be smart to remember that lesson from the links.

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