Free trade in the era of Trump

Kevin Williamson argues that the Trumpian position on trade, which he views as part of an anti-capitalist wave on the right that’s not limited to Trumpists, creates an opening for politicians on the center-left. He acknowledges that the American center-left shows few signs of seizing the opportunity to be champions of free trade, but maintains that on this issue, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were “more free-enterprise leader[s] than President Trump is or is likely to be.”

If we’re talking about trade only, I think Williamson’s point is undeniable. However, I don’t believe its validity extends beyond trade.

As for trade, it’s unlikely that, going forward, either conservatives or liberals in this country, as groups, will share Williamson’s enthusiasm for free trade. But there is a middle position between that enthusiasm and the views of Steve Bannon, and I think conservatives and Republicans are more likely than liberals and Democrats to embrace it.

The middle ground is to examine particular trade deals closely on the merits. In doing so, it does not require that the deal favor America over the partner[s] to the deal. It only requires that the deal be better for America than the absence of the deal, that it not be blatantly one-sided, and that it be enforceable. (Assessing a deal’s favorability is hardly straightforward, of course. Nearly all foreign trade deals favor some Americans and harm others).

We should not nickel and dime our less prosperous allies. An enforceable trade deal is often in the interest of all parties. We shouldn’t obsess down to the last dollar over whether it is more in our interests than theirs.

Moreover, we shouldn’t take a narrow view of our interests. We have an interest in avoiding trade wars and, within reason, supporting the global economic system. In addition, the TPP would have served our interest in cementing relations with China’s neighbors and limiting Chinese influence. Promoting that interest is worth leaving some dollars on the table.

At the same time, a trade deal, whatever its terms, isn’t in our interests if our partners are prone to cheating and the deal lacks proper enforcement mechanisms. And there are some deals that are so one-sided that even if enforceable, and even if there are foreign policy interests that favor participating, we should not agree to.

Was the TPP such a deal? I don’t know, nor have I ever seen a thorough analysis that considers the question in the terms I’ve outlined (though there may well be some).

To me, it’s an interesting question whether Trump himself will embrace the hard line Bannon position on trade or move towards the more flexible (and, I like to think, pragmatic) position I’ve tried to describe.

I think the jury is still out. As the Washington Post acknowledges, “Trump’s rhetoric has been more protectionist and populist than his record.”

However, this week, Trump approved new tariffs on foreign-made washing machines and solar panels. The move alarmed some free trade Republicans. Whether their alarm is justified, I do not know.

I’m concerned by reports that Trump has failed adequately to staff the office of the U.S. Trade Representative. According to the Daily Beast, “Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. Trade Representative, is relying on a small group of relatively unseasoned officials to advance a complex agenda, including renegotiating landmark free trade deals and cracking down on allegedly unfair practices by China, Mexico, and other major global economic partners.” One of Lighthizer’s aides, his deputy chief of staff, is less than four years out of college.

Even assuming that Trump desires a non-ideologically driven, fact-based approach to analyzing specific trade deals, that approach probably won’t be viable if the administration lacks sufficient personnel to perform the required analysis.

There are obvious parallels between Trump on trade and Trump on immigration. He took hard-line populist positions on both during the campaign seasons. On immigration, he has been more flexible as president than as candidate. The same could prove to be true on trade.

The difference is that Trump seems to be paying far more attention to immigration than to trade. On immigration, he’s under intense pressure from Democrats and certain Republicans to moderate, but at the same time receives counsel from strong conservatives like Sen. Tom Cotton who understand the issues thoroughly.

This isn’t happening on trade, as far as I can tell. He’s not being pressured much by Congress and, with Steve Bannon gone, it’s not clear that any hard liners have his ear.

In any case, we shouldn’t assume that Trump’s position, whatever it turns out to be in practice, will be the Republican position post-Trump. If Trump goes full Bannon and the economy falters, the GOP almost certainly will revert to its traditional, Reaganesque view of the virtues of free trade. If Trump goes middle-of-the road and the economy does not falter, that’s where the party will likely stay.

The Democrats, mired as they are in slough of identity politics, are likely to trumpet protectionism as a sop to white working class voters unless, down the road, protectionist Trump policies can be blamed for an economic slump.

Williamson concludes that “when the current populist convulsion has run its course, [liberals] may discover that [free trade] retains some interest.” True. But I think conservatives are more likely to be interested in it.


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