The Question of Trump’s Consistency

Tim Alberta’s National Review article, “Conservatism in the Trump Era,” is a terrific piece of reporting, well worth taking in. Among other questions, it looks at the notion of whether the new “economic nationalism” that Trump, or at least his amanuensis Steve Bannon, is working out in real time will confound or corrupt conservatism­—or make for an enduring Republican majority that scrambles the voter alignments of the last two generations. Alberta quotes Bannon:

[David] McIntosh hopes Carrier is a “one-off thing,” but what if it’s not? Ten days after the election, Bannon put the party on notice in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. “We’re going to build an entirely new political movement,” he boasted. “The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Ship yards, iron works, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”

Beyond the Carrier intervention is Trump’s incipient protectionism, which threatens to upend a core tenet of conservative economic orthodoxy.

Here one should perhaps be willing to give Trump and Bannon the benefit of the doubt by reviewing how Winston Churchill changed his mind about free trade. Keep in mind that it was the issue of free trade that initially caused Churchill to leave the Conservative Party and join the Liberal Party in 1904. His early parliamentary speeches on behalf of free trade were taken, sometimes directly, from the works of classical liberal thinkers like Fredric Bastiat. Churchill said in one speech that free trade “enshrines certain central truths, economic truths, and, I think, moral truths.” Among other things, Churchill rightly thought politically determined tariffs invited corruption from special interests and favored industries.

Churchill rejoined the Conservative Party in 1924 only after the Conservatives jettisoned broad protectionism. But even if Churchill didn’t fully retract any of his earlier free trade positions, he was willing to support and even defend what today we’d called “targeted” protectionism (the Conservative Party called it “Imperial preference,” as it sought to bind the British economy to the Empire and dominion nations), and with the coming of the Great Depression by 1931 Churchill openly supported a protective tariff, though understanding this story fully would require a long detour into the bitter lessons Churchill learned as Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1924 to 1929 and the India dispute of the same period.

Paul Addison, author of an excellent book about Churchill’s domestic political career, summarized the change thus:

In one of the great somersaults of his career, he turned himself into a vigorous advocate of protectionism. He even adopted the most controversial aspect of the protectionism programme, which he had regularly denounced since 1903: food taxes.

Here one ought to consult Churchill’s own reflections on the nature of wise statesmanship and consistency for background insight—if not necessarily a definitive answer—on how to think about Trumponomics. Churchill states the coda at the outset of his essay “Consistency in Politics”:

A distinction should be drawn at the outset between two kinds of political inconsistency. First, a Statesman in contact with the moving current of events and anxious to keep the ship on an even keel and steer a steady course may lean all his weight now on one side and now on the other. His arguments in each case when contrasted can be shown to be not only very different in character but contradictory in spirit and opposite in direction: yet his object will throughout have remained the same. His resolves, his wishes, his outlook may have been unchanged; his methods may be verbally irreconcilable. We cannot call this inconsistency. In fact it may be claimed to be the truest consistency. The only way a man can remain consistent amid changing circumstances is to change with them while preserving the same dominating purpose.

So the first question to be asked in applying this view to Trumponomics is what end Trump has in view. The policy of seeking the self-interest and self-preservation of our industrial heartland through protectionism may be mistaken (very likely it is), but its object is not.

As for the issue of trade itself, later on in the same essay Churchill writes:

A more searching scrutiny should also be applied to changes of view in relation not to events but to systems of thought and doctrine. In modern British politics no greater contrast can be found than in comparing the Free Trade speeches of the late Mr. Joseph Chamberlain as President of the Board of Trade in the early eighties with the Protectionist speeches which he delivered during the Tariff campaign at the beginning of the twentieth century. Here we are dealing not with the turbulent flow of events but with precise methods of thought. Those who read Mr. Chamberlain’s Free Trade speeches will find that almost every economic argument which he used in 1904 was foreseen and countered by him in 1884. Yet the sincerity of his later views was generally accepted by friends and opponents alike. And after all, once he had come to think differently on economic subjects, was it not better that he should unhesitatingly give his country the benefit of his altered convictions? Still, it must be observed that the basis of reasoning had changed very little in the twenty years’ interval, that the problem was mainly an abstract one in its character, and that it was substantially the same problem. There need be no impeachment of honesty of purpose or of a zealous and unceasing care for the public interest. But there is clearly in this case a contradiction of argument in regard to the same theory which amounts to self-stultification.

We may illustrate this distinction further. Mr. Chamberlain argued in 1884 that a tax on imports was paid by the home consumer, and in 1904 that it was paid, very largely at any rate, by the foreigner. We cannot help feeling that the reasoning processes underlying these two conclusions are fundamentally incompatible, and it is hard to understand how a man who once saw the one process so clearly should subsequently have visualized and accepted the opposite process with equal vehemence and precision. It would have been better, tactically at any rate, for Mr. Chamberlain to have relinquished the abstract argument altogether and to have relied exclusively in his advocacy upon the facts, the world facts, which were really his reasons, the importance of consolidating the British Empire by means of a Zollverein, and the necessity of rallying support for that policy among the British industrial interests and the Conservative working classes; for these considerations, in his view, overruled, whether or not they contradicted, the validity of his purely economic conviction.

I suspect this last part is the thought process a lot of Republicans are entertaining right now. (It is worth adding, but deserves a separate post, that in this period of economic depression Churchill steadfastly opposed the Keynesian prescription of increasing employment through large public works projects paid for with borrowed money.)