The Corner

Economy & Business

The Political Demand for Protectionism

Scott Lincicome reviews public-opinion data to show that there has been no upsurge in protectionist sentiment. “Trump’s protectionism,” he writes, “drives (and is not itself driven by) the opinions of a significant portion of the electorate — an electorate that, when confronted with the actual implications of Trump’s policies (i.e., higher prices, harmed businesses, or foreign retaliation), moves toward the freer trade position” (emphasis in original).

As useful a corrective as his study is, I’d add two caveats. The first is that certain arguments for trade barriers — e.g., we have to erect them to fight unfair trade practices abroad — have probably always made sense to most people, even if there has been no uptick in this sentiment.

The second is that a policy need not be popular to be politically useful. Let’s say that a significant number of voters who have little attachment to the Republican party listen to protectionist rhetoric from a Republican politician and vote for him on the ground that he, at least, is trying to do something that will benefit them and their communities and to be tough on countries that merit it; and let’s say, also, that the group of voters who take the opposing view — who consider protectionism a reason to defect from the Republicans they would otherwise support — is smaller. I’m not saying that these things are true, just that they could be. You would not detect this effect by looking at the broad trend of public opinion. (You might not even find it by asking people if they consciously based their votes on trade policy.)

To get a little less abstract: Protectionist policies are among the very few things Republicans have offered to provide specific help to distressed Rust Belt communities, and even if those policies are not nearly as helpful to them as advertised, and even harmful to the national interest, they may help get Republican votes compared to making no offer at all.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

Most Popular

Film & TV

A Sad Finale

Spoilers Ahead. Look, I share David’s love of Game of Thrones. But I thought the finale was largely a bust, for failings David mostly acknowledges in passing (but does not allow to dampen his ardor). The problems with the finale were largely the problems of this entire season. Characters that had been ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Great Misdirection

The House Democrats are frustrated, very frustrated. They’ve gotten themselves entangled in procedural disputes with the Trump administration that no one particularly cares about and that might be litigated for a very long time. A Washington Post report over the weekend spelled out how stymied Democrats ... Read More
NR Webathon

We’ve Had Bill Barr’s Back

One of the more dismaying features of the national political debate lately is how casually and cynically Attorney General Bill Barr has been smeared. He is routinely compared to Roy Cohn on a cable-TV program that prides itself on assembling the most thoughtful and plugged-in political analysts and ... Read More