Trump’s Tariff Strategy Can Be Traced Back to the 1980s

In partnership with:
May 6, 2019

As Chinese officials prepared to head to Washington, D.C., for what was expected to be the final round of trade agreement negotiations, President Donald Trump threatened to increase tariffs on imports from the country. Trump’s decision to put tariffs on billions of dollars in Chinese imports last year shocked the world — as did his tweet on Sunday, in which he said he would impose levies on additional goods.

As FRONTLINE and NPR explore in the new documentary Trump’s Trade War, Trump has taken an aggressive stance on trade for decades. He has pushed a tariff strategy since he first toyed with the idea of running for president in the late 1980s — a message that bore notable similarities to the one that helped propel his 2016 campaign.

As the film recounts, Trump’s ire was then directed at Japan’s trade practices.

“The fact is, you don’t have free trade. We think of it as free trade, but you right now don’t have free trade,” Trump said in a 1987 episode of Larry King Live that’s excerpted in Trump’s Trade War. “A lot of people are tired of watching the other countries ripping off the United States. This is a great country.” He shared similar sentiments in an interview with Oprah.

“He believed from the beginning that there’s really nothing worse than being laughed at,” Marc Fisher, author of Trump Revealed, tells FRONTLINE and NPR in the above scene from the documentary. “And he came to see the Japanese as laughing at the United States and taking advantage of the United States by stealing the jobs, by dumping product here.”

After the Japanese economy cratered, though, Trump would shift his focus to a rising economic power: China. The first time former advisor Steve Bannon came face to face with Trump, a significant amount of their meeting was spent discussing China, Bannon says in the film.

“He’s been a guy that’s watched Lou Dobbs for 30 or 40 years,” Bannon says, referring to the TV commentator who has long criticized free trade and globalization. “And the only thing he had formed as a world view was China.”

That worldview would translate to a winning campaign promise: “The message is very simple, is that, ‘the elite shipped the jobs overseas and I’m going to bring them back,’” Bannon says.

For more on the face-off between the world’s two largest economic superpowers and the impact of it all on U.S. workers, watch Trump’s Trade War. From FRONTLINE producer Rick Young and his team and NPR correspondent Laura Sullivan, the documentary investigates the forces driving the administration’s confrontations with China, and tells the inside story of a rivalry that extends well beyond trade and tariffs.

Trump’s Trade War premieres Tuesday, May 7, 2019 on PBS,, and the PBS Video App (check local listings). In addition to the documentary, listen for a report on NPR’s Morning Edition that same day (see stations and local broadcast times at

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More Stories

‘A Thousand Cuts’: Where to Stream the Documentary About Nobel Peace Prize Winner Maria Ressa
As Ressa receives the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, watch a documentary chronicling how the journalist became a target of President Rodrigo Duterte’s crackdown on the press in the Philippines.
December 8, 2021
Catching Up With 2 of the Kids from ‘Poor Kids’
Nine years after the documentary’s premiere, we talked to Kaylie and Johnny about where they are today, what’s next and life during COVID.
December 7, 2021
PANDORA PAPERS: Video & Major Stories From Our Partners
Watch the trailer for an upcoming FRONTLINE investigation into the Pandora Papers, exposing how U.S. trusts are sheltering millions in controversial assets, and read major stories from our ICIJ partners.
December 7, 2021
The ‘21-Foot Rule’: How a Controversial Training for Police is Used to Justify Shootings
The 21-foot rule is taught to police across the U.S. and officers use it to explain why they shot at someone. But it's not based on science or the law. And some national policing leaders argue it shouldn’t be taught to cadets anymore.
December 6, 2021