AMAC Exclusive – By Seamus Brennan
This month marks the four-year anniversary of the first major tariffs imposed by the Trump administration, which have markedly and perhaps permanently changed the economic and foreign policy trajectories of the Republican Party and the country. While Trump rankled many within the old-guard GOP establishment with his use of tariffs, such policies actually harken back to the very beginning of both the Republican Party and the American political tradition itself, and as such, represent a return to the historical roots of each.
Trump’s own rhetoric seemed to recognize or at least reflect this. In 2018, he took to Twitter to declare himself a “Tariff Man,” a title that echoes Republican President William McKinley’s 1896 assertion that he was “a tariff man standing on a tariff platform.” Now, thanks to Trump, the GOP is once again becoming the tariff party – and that’s good news for America’s workers and industry.
The extent to which Trump transformed the Republican Party over the last six years is difficult to understate. Since he entered the national political spotlight in 2015, there is little doubt that his ironclad focus on subjects like illegal immigration and law and order—as well as his vocal opposition to progressive culture war issues—has realigned the conservative movement with a strict ‘America First’ philosophy, guiding the GOP in a more populist direction. But amid all these hot-button issues, the former president’s reintroduction of tariffs into our national trade policy often gets lost in the mix.
Trump’s pro-tariff campaign platform in 2016 sent shivers down the spines of many purported economic “experts” and free trade absolutists who claimed that tariffs would mark a departure from traditional conservative trade policy. In reality, however, it signaled a return to the beginnings of the American conservative movement rather than a departure from it. From 1790 to 1914, tariffs made up the main source of federal revenue and served as an indispensable component of American domestic and foreign policy. In fact, the first major piece of legislation passed in the United States after the ratification of the Constitution was the Tariff Act of 1789, which was enacted in large part to protect emerging American manufacturing industries.
As Ambassador Robert Lighthizer, former U.S. Trade Representative under President Trump, observed in the early 2010s, “For most of its [then-]157-year history, the Republican Party has been the party of building domestic industry by using trade policy to promote U.S. exports and fend off unfairly traded imports. American conservatives have had that view for even longer.” From Alexander Hamilton to Presidents William McKinley and Calvin Coolidge, tariffs and other protectionist economic policies have long been defining elements of the American conservative tradition.
And come 2016, after decades of economic failures wrought by a dogmatic and unquestioning Republican commitment to so-called “free trade”, the Trump administration’s tariff-based approach sought to return the party to its roots. As Trump understood, tariffs are effective not only in that they force other countries to pay for access to the U.S. market but also in that they bring manufacturing back to the United States and protect the economic interests of America’s workers.
Throughout his four years in office, Trump imposed tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of foreign goods, notably targeting China, with whom the United States’ trade deficit had exploded over the previous two decades. He also levied tariffs on all foreign steel and aluminum, though gradually used that as negotiating leverage and granted certain nations exemptions. Trump also negotiated with Japan to reduce their barriers to American exports and open its market to $7 billion in American agricultural products.
Despite the conventional wisdom of the Washington “expert” class that these tariffs would harm the American consumer and send the economy to the brink of ruin, the facts paint a decidedly different picture. Notwithstanding the onslaught of headlines that insisted Trump’s tariffs would “Hurt America More Than China” and “hurt [the] U.S. economy rather than benefit American workers,” research has found that the vast majority of the Trump administration’s tariffs against Chinese goods were paid by the Chinese rather than the American consumer. As Peter Navarro, former Director of Trade and Manufacturing Policy in the Trump White House, explained, China paid for the tariffs in three ways: by “cutting their prices,” crushing their currency value, and a “fleeing” supply chain. And as Ambassador Lighthizer recently observed in The Economist, “The backlash from farmers and others that was predicted by pundits never happened.”
Furthermore, the tariffs imposed by the Trump administration triggered an exodus of American companies out of China, a definite benefit given the new era of competition between the two countries. Now, even Joe Biden’s Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo has been forced to concede that Trump’s tariffs were “effective” in their protection of American manufacturing industries. And as the U.S. continues to reel from the largest supply chain crisis in American history, apparently caused by COVID disruptions as well as a variety of Biden administration policies, the need to bring supply chains back to American shores is even more clear.
Following the successes of Trump’s restoration of tariffs to the center of American foreign and economic policy, the GOP cannot afford to lose sight of the gift he gave the party in returning it to its roots. Rather than remaining inflexibly tied to the international trade policies that have sparked decades’ worth of American economic decay and led to a hollowing out of our manufacturing industry and the loss of millions of jobs, they should follow President Trump’s America First economic model of low taxes on Americans and increased tariffs on foreign producers. It will be good for workers, good for families, good for jobs, and good for the Republican Party.
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