With the Twitter-first President of the United States, you'd think we'd have developed a better ecosystem around what is, essentially, click-bait. But I don't think it's happened quite yet, and I'd like to help.
When the President says something like, 'you can't have a country without a steel industry', there are a lot of responses that come to mind. "What?"; "Why?"; "Is there something special about steel? What about tin?"; "Do you need your own iron industry to feed into the steel industry?"; "What tremendous works of scholarship have led you to this extremely specific and counter-intuitive conclusion? It's not like you need steel for judges or tax collectors"; "Isn't steel an invention post-dating the rise of China and India as civilizations , which are not just, ya know, extant countries, but currently manufacturing bases?"; "Isn't steel subsidized by the Chinese government precisely the type of industrial input that would enhance our competitive stance in manufacturing?"; etc. etc.
I sort of fell into a little trap, there, you see. It's too bold and strange an assertion. If it was just "a domestic steel industry is important to jobs in every part of the economy", I wouldn't have had that type of reaction, despite some of the same concerns being useful to think about. By making it a farcically hyperbolic existential necessity, it drew me into a conversation that wasn't likely to contain any consideration at all. My examples of pre-industrial China and India would enter that strange mental void where people assume things don't matter. I can't say why a counter-example to a "X is absolutely necessary" statement would feel like nitpicking – it refutes the statement completely and highlights the need for a more moderate tone – but it does feel like nitpicking. That's how Trump, or someone who agrees, hears it – we would too. They don't really mean the hyperbolic statement, and I'd prefer the original statement wasn't hyperbolic, but that wasn't going to happen, so I feel like every normal person was sort of at a loss.
And this is modern tariff policy. It's important to get right, and engaging in a bad-faith framing for the conversation is pretty destructive. It's not like Trump felt America previously wasn't a country, and the tariffs corrected the non-existence. It was a lie the moment he said it, hyperbolic to avoid a coherent conversation that would involve honest discussion of competing values and concerns. Just say the thing you want and how you want to get it! Maybe talk about why the think you want is good, and why you think the suggestion would work! It's not hard. It's how we make every other big decision.
The best suggestion I've got is to simply point out how the statement is false until it gets moderated into a statement of values and policy. Or don't engage at all, just say, "you're wrong". There's a way to do this with tact, saying things like, "shut up, Pope, Vatican ain't a country anymore, but you've got lots of company, maybe the Pope and dozens of members of the UN should move to Pluto so their 'not-a-country's can live on not-a-planet". Does that have tact? I'm not sure. But it has as much seriousness as the original statement.