The Corner

Politics & Policy

A Reply to Steve Moore on Trump and the Working Class

Steve Moore of the Heritage Foundation is neither crazy nor immoral. On the contrary, over the years I’ve found him to be unfailingly warm, intelligent, and conscientious. Because I like and respect Steve, I’d like to respond to his essentially pro-Trump piece in a spirit of civility and respect.

What Happened? Just kidding. My inner Twitter got the better of me for a moment.

In a piece titled “Disenfranchising Millions of New Republican Voters Makes No Sense,” Moore writes: “What impresses me greatly about Trump is he is attracting millions of blue-collar, working-class Americans back to the GOP. They are abandoning the Democrats. Hallelujah, right?” 

First a word about “disenfranchising” voters. Moore suggests the “establishment” strategy is to “Keep Trump from getting a majority of the delegates (though he is very likely to win a plurality) and then steal the election from Trump at the convention.” Hold on. Preventing a candidate from amassing a majority of delegates by suggesting they vote for others is not illegitimate. And if the strategy works and Trump arrives at the convention with less than a majority, by what logic can it be called stealing if he then fails to get the nomination? It hasn’t happened that way in a very long time, but those are the rules. 

Besides, who is disparaging whom? Mitt Romney (whom Moore labels “disgraceful”) is treating voters as adults capable of responding to reasoned arguments. People are free to disregard his case if they choose. But how is it disrespectful or “disenfranchising” to Trump supporters (or would-be supporters) to present facts and evidence? Isn’t it condescension to assume that they are unreachable by arguments? 

So what about the fervor Trump has engendered among blue-collar, working-class Americans? Yes, it would be great if the enthusiasm were for Republican ideas, but Trump doesn’t offer those. Instead, he offers protectionism and nationalism. 

There has been a great deal of talk over the past few years about the “betrayal” of working class voters by the GOP. This is the narrative spun by many a talk radio host and powering the tremendous anger registering in exit polls against the Republican Party. But it requires a remarkable cynicism or denial to condemn the “establishment” for letting working people down and to then turn around and embrace a guy who promises to impoverish them. (Not addressing Steve Moore here. He explicitly declines to endorse Trump.)

It does no good to attract new voters to the “Republican” standard if that word now means tariffs and trade wars.

“We are just getting killed in trade,” Trump tells crowds. “Absolutely killed. We negotiate the worst deals.” He then promises to punish China, Mexico, Japan and other trading partners with 35 to 40 percent tariffs. 

Trade with China is not the result of any deal concocted in Washington. Yes, China enjoys Most Favored Nation trading status, but nearly every country in the world has that. China is not part of the Trans Pacific Partnership, which, in any case, hasn’t yet kicked in. Trade with China grew organically as China’s economy expanded after adopting market reforms. Yes, we have a trade deficit with China, but I have a permanent trade deficit with my grocer. Every week I buy products from him and he never buys products from me. But I don’t feel that this relationship exploits me. 

Beyond that, trade deficits are offset by capital inflow. The Chinese and others take those dollars and invest in our Treasury bills, and stock and bond markets. 

Trade is the greatest engine of prosperity ever devised. It’s a win/win transaction for both parties.

The Chinese have a nasty government and may be headed for a major fall. The Chinese government deserves to be overthrown immediately. But let’s be clear — we can impose tariffs, but we can’t impose them on China. We can only impose them on ourselves. It is American consumers, especially those who shop at Walmart, Target, and other large retailers, who would pay the tariff in the form of higher prices. And those most affected would be blue-collar and working class Americans.

As Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute explains, tariffs have costs and benefits. The benefits usually go to politically well-connected industries. A handy example is steel manufacturers. So the makers of steel (including both owners and workers) get the benefit of higher prices. But the purchasers of steel, like car makers and others, pay higher prices, as do consumers. One industry gets concentrated benefits from the tariff, while the costs, including job losses in downstream industries, are widely distributed. 

We can make imports more expensive by imposing tariffs, but that will make us less competitive in turn. Fifty percent of imports are used in domestic manufacturing. A tariff is the ultimate in crony capitalist corruption; the state favoring one industry or special interest at the expense of the majority. It’s little wonder that Bernie Sanders is also a protectionist. 

Of course Republicans should pay attention to the needs of working class voters – and all of the other Republican candidates have policy proposals to do so ranging from tax reform and tax credits to deregulation to education reforms. Protectionism is a boomerang.

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