We came down hard on The Donald for his tariff increases and rightly so. We also said that we are happy he won in 2016 and we are even happier that his predecessor is gone. Jonah Goldberg in his G-file tries to make it a problem with populism:
The funny thing is that this move toward protection is celebrated or condemned as a fulfillment of Trump’s “populist” agenda. I get that we label protectionism “populist” these days — though I’m old enough to remember when protectionism was a technocratic cause. But populism is supposed to mean putting the interests of “the people” first. (The problem with populism is that populists never mean all the people; they only mean their people.) And this move isn’t in the interests of most people.
It isn’t. It is a problem with elections and Republicans in particular. Reagan and W are the two most conservative presidents since Coolidge and he was not a free trader either. Almost everyone remembers that W did some backsliding on tariffs:
The temporary tariffs of 8–30% were originally scheduled to remain in effect until 2005. They were imposed to give U.S. steel makers protection from what a U.S. probe determined was a detrimental surge in steel imports. More than 30 steel makers had declared bankruptcy in recent years. Steel producers had originally sought up to a 40% tariff. Canada and Mexico were exempt from the tariffs because of penalties the United States would face under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Additionally, some developing countries such as Argentina, Thailand, and Turkey were also exempt. The typical steel tariff at the time was usually between zero and one percent, making the 8–30% rates seem exceptionally high. These rates, though, are comparable to the standard permanent U.S. tariff rates on many kinds of clothes and shoes.
Holman W. Jenkins, jr. in the WSJ reminds us that Reagan made much more extensive choices than W:
Reagan slapped import quotas on cars, motorcycles, forklifts, memory chips, color TVs, machine tools, textiles, steel, Canadian lumber and mushrooms.
Holman argues that it didn’t matter because they were negotiated. Perhaps. What does matter is that Republicans backslide on tariffs because there are intense big winners and widely dispersed small losers. Sadly, protectionism is a good political game and our most conservative presidents including Reagan have played it. The Donald does too. We are rightly worried about The Donald continuing to play it because he is not a conservative. We will continue to encourage him towards free trade while reminding everyone that free trade was not supported by either presidential candidate in the 2016 general election. Yes, it would be better if this was Mitt’s second term but that was not a choice in 2016.