Trump Returns the Republican Party to Its 19th-Century Protectionist Roots

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Trump calls Republicans back to the spirit of Reed Smoot and Willis Hawley, whose tariff of 1930 may have deepened and lengthened the Great Depression.Photo: Library of Congress

Throughout the 2016 presidential cycle, Donald Trump has been that rare Republican willing to attack not only future (like the Obama-sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership) but also past (NAFTA) multilateral trade agreements. But, by and large, this candidate, who never really embraced systematic thinking, mostly talked of trade policy as something that he would improve via his personal negotiating genius. Uncle Sam might still play the trade game, but he’d no longer be Uncle Sucker, being constantly outmaneuvered by swarthy or sallow foreigners. 

But now, in a speech delivered in the Rust Belt state of Pennsylvania, Trump has gone High Protectionist, rejecting not just this or that trade deal, but the whole idea of globalization, which he regards as a politician’s trick on the Folks, who have watched helplessly as Bill and Hillary Clinton sold out their birthright of manufacturing jobs for a mess of Wall Street pottage. Trump sounds like Bernie Sanders on a very bad, dyspeptic day:

The legacy of Pennsylvania steelworkers lives in the bridges, railways and skyscrapers that make up our great American landscape. But our workers’ loyalty was repaid with betrayal.

Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization — moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas. Globalization has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very wealthy. But it has left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache.

When subsidized foreign steel is dumped into our markets, threatening our factories, the politicians do nothing.

For years, they watched on the sidelines as our jobs vanished and our communities were plunged into depression-level unemployment. Many of these areas have still never recovered.

Our politicians took away from the people their means of making a living and supporting their families. Skilled craftsmen and tradespeople and factory workers have seen the jobs they loved shipped thousands of miles away. Many Pennsylvania towns once thriving and humming are now in a state despair.

This wave of globalization has wiped out our middle class.

And on and on it goes. Trump’s narrative of an idyllic, prelapsarian America ruined by globalization has a few holes. It begins with virtuous protectionists George Washington and Alexander Hamilton (you know, the star of that Broadway musical), and then skips far ahead to the Clintons, who wrecked it all with NAFTA and China’s admission to the WTO. You wouldn’t know from listening to him that Ronald Reagan (mentioned by Trump only in connection with a highly uncharacteristic tariff he imposed on Japan) was talking favorably about something very much like NAFTA in 1980; that his successor George H.W. Bush actually negotiated and signed the agreement; or for that matter, that the TPP is as much a product of George W. Bush’s trade diplomacy as Obama’s. 

More generally, Trump is ignoring a free-trade tradition in the Republican Party that dates back to the very post–World War II era that he identifies as an American golden age. Yes, Richard Nixon offered protection to the textile industry as part of his 1968 deal with Strom Thurmond (whose South Carolina Republican Party was a wholly owned subsidiary of textile baron Roger Milliken). Yes, John Connally bashed the Japanese during his unsuccessful 1980 presidential campaign. And yes, Pat Buchanan offered very much the same analysis and prescription of America’s economic challenges during his two unsuccessful presidential campaigns (curiously, he somehow saw America as ruined even in 1992, before NAFTA!). 

But for the most part, Republican protectionism, rooted in the early 19th-century Whig protectionism of Henry Clay and his “American System,” expired with the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930, widely blamed for setting off a worldwide trade war that made a worldwide Great Depression significantly more painful. And far from being some Clintonian invention, Democratic support for trade liberalization is probably the longest-standing policy tradition in either party, dating all the way back to Martin Van Buren (his predecessor Andrew Jackson had a protectionist streak often attributed to his important political following in the selfsame Pennsylvania where Trump unleashed his protectionist thunder today). 

Bernie Sanders represents an authentic and fairly widespread lefty backlash against the Democratic free-trade tradition, rooted in the labor movement, which obviously lost an awful lot in the demise of many traditional, often unionized, industries. Hillary Clinton’s decision to oppose TPP is a sign of that perspective’s power. But in Trump’s case, he’s reaching far back to a lost Republican tradition that is now the starkest heresy among most economic conservatives. On word of Trump’s speech in Pennsylvania, you can be sure knees jerked violently not only on Wall Street and the editorial rooms of its Journal, but also in chambers of commerce across the land where the pure gospel of free trade has been preached for eons. Trump has now declared that gospel pure evil, and the blowback may make the embarrassment-bordering-on-irritated-hostility that his immigration demagoguery produced in the same circles look very mild by comparison.

But somewhere, the ghosts of Smoot and Hawley, of McKinley and Benjamin Harrison, yea of Clay and of Hamilton, are cheering. Welcome back to the future, Republicans.