Trump, tariffs, and the new (old) Republican Party

Trump now threatens the European Union with tariffs on $11 billion of E.U. products.  As a nationalist, not an internationalist, the president is focused on the best interest of the American worker and American business.  Tariffs are a tool he's more than willing to use.  

Historically, Republicans have always been for restrictions on free trade.  As Abraham Lincoln said in 1847, "give us a protective tariff, and we shall have the greatest nation on earth."  Protectionism goes all the way back to Alexander Hamilton's "Report on Manufactures."  The second bill signed by President Washington was the Tariff Act of 1789, imposing a broad 5% tariff.  It was gradually increased and stood at 40% in 1820. 

From 1820 to the end of World War II, American industry was the most protected in the world.  High tariffs were coincident with economic growth.  Between 1871 and 1913, tariffs were never lower than 38%, and annual increase of Gross National Product averaged 4.3%.  The United States became the economic superpower of the world while it protected its industries.  A small country, with a small domestic market, can be punished by competitors for high tariffs.  The huge market of this country allows us to thrive with protection.

Southern Democrats were the champions of free trade.  They were commodity-exporters and wanted a free market in cotton.  The 1896 defeat of Democratic president Grover Cleveland by Republican challenger William McKinley was all about the tariff. 

This all changed after World War II.  Before Trump, every Republican presidential nominee in the postwar era was for free trade.  And while the rest of the world recovered from the war, American free trade policy did us little harm.  But as foreign competition returned around 1970, American industry began to suffer.  Regardless of the consequences to the welfare of the American workforce, free trade remained Republican dogma.

It was part of the conservative economic gospel, from Buckley to Goldwater to Reagan.  And it was ardently supported by Wall Street and international business interests, so it brought in contributions.  Because of this libertarian, ideological commitment to free trade, Republicans could never truly be the party of the working man.

Then came Trump and the switch to the restrictions of fair trade — trade that is fair for the average working American.  In the big picture, free trade may be good for Wall Street, and even the nation as a whole.  But if the benefits are concentrated, and the costs of free trade are disproportionately borne by the working man, then it's not fair, and it doesn't pass muster.

As a fair trader, Trump is a new breed of Republican, representing a return to the party's roots.  This is the kind of Republican the base of the party wants, even if it splits the party with the Chamber of Commerce.  Trump has rebranded the party, and it's not going back.  If, with prosperity and fair trade, Trump is able to bring more black and Latino workers into his camp, he will have recruited a majority of the country to his base.

Trump has singlehandedly transformed the Republican Party.  It's now once more the party of fair trade and the working man.

One man with courage has made history.

 Fritz Pettyjohn is a recent convert to fair trade.  He blogs at ReaganProject,com.

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