A statement from President Trump: “Trade wars are good, and easy to win.” I wonder how many Republicans and conservatives believe this. A goodly number, I bet. The Reaganite element is smaller than many of us assumed.
In response to the president’s statement, Ben Sasse, the Republican senator from Nebraska, said, “Trade wars are never won. Trade wars are lost by both sides. Kooky 18th-century protectionism will jack up prices on American families — and will prompt retaliation from other countries. Make no mistake: If the president goes through with this, it will kill American jobs — that’s what every trade war ultimately does. So much losing.”
Trump announced new tariffs, and big ones at that. (You can appreciate the president’s willingness to “go big or go home.”) The feisty Sasse said, “Let’s be clear: The president is proposing a massive tax increase on American families. Protectionism is weak, not strong. You’d expect a policy this bad from a leftist administration, not a supposedly Republican one.”
Few GOP officeholders have spoken so sharply about Trump since Trump was sworn in.
By some minds, the mutual benefits of trade are hard to grasp. These minds are zero-sum, thinking that there must be a winner and a loser, period. Trade is a very different phenomenon.
About many issues, Trump has been shifty, or unformed. But about trade, he has been absolutely consistent: Since the 1980s, he has been a trade-skeptic, to put it mildly. About immigration, he has waxed and waned — remember when he knocked Mitt Romney for being “mean-spirited” toward Hispanics? — but about trade, he has been unswerving.
And, of course, he got elected. We hear that his aides are opposed to his protectionism. Fine, but the aides weren’t elected. Trump was. The rest of us can run for office ourselves and make our case.
For decades, National Review has been arguing for trade, and so have many others in the conservative orbit. After Milton Friedman died in 2006, there was a lot of triumphalism on our side. “He won!” people said. “We won! The arguments for free enterprise and free trade have carried the day, leaving socialism and protectionism in the dust!”
The truth is, you never win. At the same time, you never lose (permanently). Year in and year out, you have to argue and persuade and prove. You can’t afford to coast. People are being born all the time. Think of that! They are not born knowing the fundamentals of economics. They have to be taught them. I was (fairly late in the game, frankly). We all were.
Yet I can understand the reluctance of politicians to talk about trade. Phil Gramm, the economist from Georgia who made a political career in Texas, put it this way to Bill Buckley: There is no percentage in bringing up trade on the stump. The reason is, trade is helpful to almost everybody, and few people know it. Trade is harmful to some — at least temporarily — and they all know it.
On to another statement by President Trump: “Take the guns first, go through due process second.”
Okay. If Trump wants to be a populist, or whatever the right designation is, great. If the American people want him to be president, great. This is a democracy, thank heaven (with republican protections, of course). What is irksome, however, is that, every single day, people who style themselves “true conservatives” tell me that Jeb Bush is not a conservative. And that Mitt Romney is not a conservative. And that Ben Sasse is not a conservative. And that Donald Trump is. The champion of us all.
I agree that Trump and Sasse (let’s say) can’t wear the same political label. One is one thing, the other another thing. Who’s the conservative? This term, this concept, is up for grabs.
Let me conclude with Ben Stein, talking about tariffs and the Great Depression. You remember his character from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) — the movie that George Will hailed as the greatest ever made (“movie” as distinct from “film,” he said). “Anyone? Anyone?”