Is Trump a True Conservative?

During Saturday’s Republican presidential candidate debate in New Hampshire, Donald Trump was asked:

Mr. Trump, you've heard the argument from many of the candidates on this stage that you're not a true conservative. Tell the voters watching tonight why you are.

He replied:

Well, I think I am, and to me, I view the word conservative as a derivative of the word “conserve.” We want to conserve our money. We want to conserve our wealth. We want to conserve. We want to be smart. We want to be smart where we go, where we spend, how we spend. We want to conserve our country. We want to save our country. And we have people that have no idea how to do that, and they are not doing it, and it's a very important word and it's something I believe in very, very strongly.

Trump gave a general definition of conservative, which is valid. But there are more specific definitions as well. A political conservative is one who believes in a limited role for government, a strict construction of the constitution, fiscal discipline, rule of law and free enterprise. Social conservatives support the traditional family and oppose abortion, pornography, sexual promiscuity and redefinition of marriage. One can be politically conservative without being socially conservative and vice versa. We are not experts on social conservatism, but we do know something about economics, so we will examine whether Trump is a political conservative.

No president is 100% conservative. From the politically conservative Mises Institute comes the following quote: “Contrary to popular myth, every Republican president since and including Herbert Hoover has increased the federal government's size, scope, or power—and usually all three.” Were they political conservatives? Not by our definition. That applies to Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Republicans woo the same constituencies that the Democrats do, so that is no surprise.

Many self-described conservatives say they will not support Donald Trump because he does not have a record as a conservative. But Trump does not have any legislative record at all, so it is not surprising that he does not have a record as a conservative. Trump’s credentials come from the private sector. He is an entrepreneur with an undergraduate degree in economics from the Wharton School of Business of the University of Pennsylvania. It is time we had a president who understands economics and has a practical grasp of how the economy really works.

The National Review, which self-identifies itself as a conservative magazine, recently devoted a special issue with writings by 20 persons that it deems to be conservatives, indicating why they believe Trump is not.  But very few of the reasons cited have anything to do with conservatism. Let’s look at Trump’s current positions to see if they are conservative.

Centralized Power vs. Distributed Power

The key issue dividing liberals and conservatives is centralized power versus distributed power. Liberals prefer centralized power that makes it possible for them to impose their policies from the top. This is especially important in the economic realm because liberal policies only work if they are imposed from the top. Otherwise, localities that follow liberal dictates deteriorate economically, while those that follow conservative dictates prosper.  So liberals want big government, the bigger and more powerful, the better.

In contrast, conservatives, including America’s founding fathers, believe in distributed power. When they created the United States, they maintained separate states each with its own power, and reserved to the states those powers not given to the federal government by the Constitution.

Take education for example, President Reagan sought to eliminate the Department of Education. But today’s Republican establishment favored “No Child Left Behind” under President George W. Bush and now favors “Common Core” under President Obama, both being attempts to implement a national educational program. In contrast, Trump opposes Common Core and has called for cutting the Department of Education.

Or take the environment. Each state has its own environmental protection agency, and most environmental problems are local. Liberals favor giving more and more power to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, so that they can control environmental policy from Washington. Conservatives prefer leaving environmental policy to the states, so that if California enacts regulatory policies that make gasoline and eggs more expensive, other states can out-compete it economically. Trump wants to cut the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Or take the issue of using trade agreements to enforce environmental agreements such as the Paris climate treaty. When President Obama negotiated the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), his trade negotiator wrote that TPP will enforce multilateral environmental agreements or “we will not come to agreement.” His trade negotiator now says that TPP is too controversial for climate commitments to be added, so Canada’s Minister of International trade says that they will be added, instead, to a different trade agreement, NAFTA. Trump is skeptical about global warming and opposes both TPP and NAFTA.

Or take federal government growth.  Republicans have controlled the federal government’s purse strings for the past six years and have little to show for it.  Their only accomplishment was an across-the-board cut in the growth of federal expenditures, cutting both good programs and worthless programs indiscriminately. The Republican controlled House and Senate just capitulated to the President’s threat of a veto and gave him a two year budget much larger than 2015. In contrast, Trump promises to put fellow businessmen in his cabinet with instructions to make significant cuts in the federal government.

Immigration and the Law

Conservatives tend to support the rule of law and to oppose lawlessness. Take illegal immigration, for example. Unskilled immigrants are pouring across the porous U.S. borders. Some are committing crimes. Some are taking jobs that unskilled Americans would otherwise have. Trump promises to enforce the law, which is a conservative position.

Or take Muslim immigration. Islam is the only major religion that still believes in conquering the world by force. Pamela Geller, citing Peter Hammond, laid out the pattern. As the Muslim population rises, lawlessness directed against non-Muslims tends to increase. If Pres. Clinton had examined our open doors to Muslims after the first attack on the World Trade Towers, the 9/11 attack could have been avoided, three thousand lives saved, and enormous property damage avoided. Not only that, the Boston Marathon bombing and the San Bernardino massacres could have been averted. Trump is the only candidate to advocate temporarily closing our borders to Muslim immigrants “until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat that it poses.”

The Issue of Trade

During the past several decades, trade deficits converted the United States from being the world’s leading creditor nation to the world’s leading debtor nation, resulting in the loss of millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs and a decline in American economic and political power, relative to the rest of the world. 

There is a huge divide within the Republican Party between those who favor and those who oppose Trump’s trade proposals. All, including Trump, favor free trade with Canada, because it is balanced.  The disagreement between Trump and many conservatives occurs regarding those countries that run trade surpluses that give the U.S. trade deficits. Trump advocates placing tariffs upon their products to bring them to the negotiating table. The two positions on free trade when it is unbalanced are: (1) one-sided free trade and (2) balanced trade.

Some conservatives want to continue the Bush-Obama one-sided free trade policy. In fact they want to double-down on it by passing the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12 country trade agreement which would let Japan, Mexico, Vietnam, and Malaysia run growing trade surpluses with the U.S. while preventing any response from the United States.

Others prefer balanced trade agreements. For example, on January 19, Sarah Palin endorsed Trump’s candidacy for President. Almost five years earlier, after meeting with Trump, she told the Los Angeles Times:

What do we have in common? Our love for this country, a desire to see our economy put back on the right track. To have a balanced trade arrangement with other countries across this world so Americans can have our jobs, our industries, our manufacturing again. And exploiting responsibly our natural resources. We can do that again if we make good decisions.

University of Maryland Professor Peter Morici, a former chief economist in the U.S. trade office, also supports Trump’s balanced trade policy. He recently wrote (Trump’s Got it Right on Trade):

Donald Trump has been savaged by economists and media aligned with establishment candidates for tough positions on trade — including a 45 percent tariff on imports to force China to the negotiating table.

Actually, he’s got it right….

Overall, the U.S. trade deficit exceeds $500 billion a year and kills about 4 million jobs. Lost manufacturing takes a big bite out of R&D spending and that goes a long way toward explaining why growth is so disappointing and median family incomes are down $4000 since 2000.

Before President George W. Bush, conservative presidents acted against unbalanced trade by forcing our trade surplus trading partners into negotiations, just as Trump proposes:

·      In 1971, conservative U.S. President Richard Nixon took advantage of a provision for trade-deficit countries in GATT rules (which became WTO rules) by imposing the across-the-board 10% tariff that got the negotiations going which brought U.S. trade into balance by 1973.

·      In 1981, conservative U.S. President Ronald Reagan threatened to support a Congressional bill that would limit U.S. imports from Japan. In the negotiations that followed, he got Japan to “voluntarily” restrain its automobile exports to the United States.

In a 2012 article, Federal Reserve researcher Justin R. Pierce and Yale economist Peter K. Schott found a direct link between the sharp drop in U.S. manufacturing employment after 2001 and the U.S. granting of permanent normal trade relations to China. U.S. trade agreements have encouraged U.S. companies to move their operations abroad, secure in the knowledge that their products could be shipped to the U.S. free of duty.

So which is the principled conservative position when countries run trade surpluses with the United States? Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama gave their answer by doing next to nothing when China, Japan, Mexico, and other countries ran huge trade surpluses with the U.S. throughout their presidencies. During Bush’s presidency, the Republican Party lost first the Senate and then the House, while during Obama’s presidency the Democratic Party lost first the House and then the Senate.

Yet the Bush-Obama trade policy is still supported by Republican congressional leaders. Majority leader Senator Mitch McConnell recently asked President Obama to postpone the vote on TPP until after the November elections, knowing that many Republican Senators would have to vote against it if it comes up before the election, but could vote for it if it comes up afterwards.

So is Trump a true conservative? He would transfer power back from the federal government to the states. He would cut the federal government’s budget. He would enforce immigration laws. He would combat lawlessness due to immigration. And he would balance trade. His proposals indicate that he is indeed a true political conservative

The Richmans co-authored the 2014 book Balanced Trade: Ending the Unbearable Costs of America’s Trade Deficits, published by Lexington Books, and the 2008 book Trading Away Our Future, published by Ideal Taxes Association.


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