How Trump’s Protectionism Could Save the GOP

While Conservatism, Inc. continues to criticize President Trump’s new steel tariffs, its spokesmen appear incurious about the possible positive effects the tariffs may have. Not only would the new duties help the economy, but they could very well be the best thing that’s happened to the GOP since the 1920s.

First, of course, it should go without saying the free-trader panic over these tariffs is overblown. After all, Trump’s proposed tariff rate on steel is 25 percent—less than a similar steel tariff of 30 percent former President George W. Bush imposed in 2002. You didn’t hear warnings of a “trade war” then.

Second, it’s obvious that Trump tested the waters first before launching this crucial tariff. He enacted a tariff on Chinese-made solar panels in January, which met with concern trolling from the same crowd. But that tariff resulted in a triumph, as the Chinese company Jinko Solar announced it would build a $410 million plant in Florida and create 800 new American jobs.

Even CNBC acknowledged this as a “big win” for Trump’s economic protectionism. That was how Trump knew this tariff would have a similar effect, and it already has. The mere announcement of this new tariff led U.S. Steel to deliver the news that it would reopen an old factory in Granite City, Illinois, which should bring back 500 jobs. And that’s just the beginning.

Art of the Deal
Trump has also made sure to execute his signature negotiating move with these tariffs, by offering to use them as leverage to obtain something more important. He
offered to lift tariffs on Mexico and Canada if the North American Free Trade Agreement is successfully negotiated into a better, more pro-American deal. As NAFTA is arguably the mother of all bad trade deals, such a move would be just as beneficial as these new steel tariffs, if not even more beneficial.

Trump has done this kind of thing before, whether it was the proposed amnesty for 1.8 million in the DACA deal, or when he proposed that the Democrats could combine both Dianne Feinstein’s gun control bill with proposed legislation by Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Joe Manchin in exchange for a proposal to arm school teachers. He has laid down his major, hardline base condition (in this case, renegotiation of NAFTA) and offered his opposition something that they seriously want (in this case, rescinding the tariffs), since he knows that the other side ultimately will not accept this deal. And in the end, just as with DACA and gun control, no deal is better than a bad deal, and inaction is still a net positive for Republicans; both the tariffs and an eventual withdrawal from NAFTA would most likely take place, leaving Trump in an even stronger position as he racks up more wins and uncovers the unreasonableness of his opponents.

Trump has refused to back down, despite the howling of all the establishment naysayers who insist tariffs are a “bad idea.” Just as with the Paris Accord withdrawal or his historic Jerusalem declaration, he is standing firm and proving himself to be the ultimate maverick as he does what he knows is right. He even escalated his protectionist rhetoric, threatening to retaliate with a tariff on European-made cars after the EU threatened its own retaliatory tariffs. He casually dismissed the fears of a possible trade war, declaring on Twitter that “trade wars are good, and easy to win.”

It’s easy to see why Trump’s chief economic advisor, Gary Cohn, resigned. Meanwhile, Trump’s tariffs have been praised by another billionaire innovator who has plenty of experience in the international market: Elon Musk. The SpaceX and Tesla CEO pointed out that China already levies a similar 25 percent tariff on American-made cars. The potential benefits of Trump’s tariffs have been defended by mainstream media outlets such as Forbes, and has even found support among some congressional Democrats.

Trump’s proposals on trade aim to fight back against Chinese and other foreign markets running rampant over the domestic market, and particularly our manufacturing industry.

Already his policies are expanding our manufacturing base; in his state of the union address, Trump pointed out that almost 200,000 new manufacturing jobs have been created since he took office. Even the Washington Post was forced to admit this is true, and stands in stark contrast to the net loss of 16,000 manufacturing jobs in 2016. Bloomberg has similarly reported that U.S. manufacturing industries have expanded at their fastest pace since 2004.

Boost the Economy, Reap Electoral Benefits
And it should be plain why Trump is zeroing in on this particular issue, and has been doing so ever since he started his campaign. Of course, these moves will strengthen the overall U.S. economy (even more than he already has), but there is one other significant accomplishment that comes with such protectionism in addition to the economic prosperity: the political (read: electoral) benefits.

It has been said before, and it needs to be said again: Donald Trump won the presidency because of the Rust Belt. He carried Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, won by unprecedented landslides in the traditional swing states of Ohio and Iowa, and almost won the elusive state of Minnesota. No Republican had carried Wisconsin since 1984, or Michigan and Pennsylvania since 1988. His victory in Iowa was the biggest for a Republican since Reagan in 1980, and his victory in Ohio was the largest for any presidential candidate since Bush Sr. in 1988. He surpassed Bush Jr.’s performance in Minnesota in 2000, and came closer to winning that state than any Republican since Reagan in 1984.

And all of this came on top of the fact that Trump still lost more than half of the national swing states: New Hampshire, Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada. Prior to 2016, the GOP’s strategy for the previous two decades had been to fight for every single conventional swing state, in addition to holding the traditional red states in Middle America (particularly the central states and the South). The best example is the 2004 election, when George W. Bush defeated John Kerry. In that race, Bush won eight of the nine states that are generally considered “swing states”: Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia; he lost New Hampshire. That year, Bush’s electoral total was 286, while Kerry’s was 252. Not exactly reassuring, and certainly not a landslide.

In 2016, Trump won the largest electoral victory of any Republican since 1988, carrying over 300 electoral votes. And again, he did this by swapping out the majority of swing states for just three traditionally blue states in the Rust Belt.

His secret, of course, was his appeal to blue-collar and working-class voters, particularly in the energy industries and the manufacturing industries, which are the backbone of the Rust Belt. Therefore, not only are such pro-American tariffs overwhelmingly popular with the population at large, but they’re especially important to these states in particular. Recent polling out of the Rust Belt states (as well as Florida) shows that Trump’s approval rating in those states is higher than his national average, including a resounding 54 percent approval in Ohio. Even mainstream media outlets, including Politico and the Wall Street Journal, have documented how his protectionism has made Rust Belt voters among his most loyal supporters.

The New Math
That is unquestionably the single most seismic change that President Trump can possibly bring about. The GOP was on the run, on the verge of electoral extinction at the national level, ever since Clinton first won. As of the 2010 census and subsequent allocation of electoral votes, the Democrats had a base advantage of 242 electoral votes (not counting the nine swing states) due to their firm blue walls on the West Coast, the Northeast, and the Rust Belt. The Republicans had 191.

Now, since Trump set 2016 as the new standard for Republicans’ presidential performance, the GOP has the chance to go into future presidential elections with a base number of 261 electoral votes, to the Democrats’ 196 (again, not including the swing states). He can change Iowa and Ohio from swing states to safe red states, flip Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania from safe blue to reliably red states, and even turn Minnesota from a solid blue to a leaning red state. If he did add Minnesota to his list of conquests in 2020, then the GOP would have 271 electoral votes right there, even without Florida and North Carolina. At the absolute best, if he held all of the 2016 states and also flipped the two swing states that were excruciatingly close (Nevada and New Hampshire), he would add another ten electoral votes, for a grand total of 326.

That is the true end game of Trump’s protectionism, alongside revitalizing an American economy that has been bled dry by ruthless foreign competitors. The GOP would get the credit, and thus would become the dominant party for perhaps several more decades. It certainly would not be the first time such a trend occurred because of tariffs either; as Pat Buchanan pointed out, the “Old Right” Republican Party—from Lincoln to Coolidge—was the party of tariffs.

As a result, the party won 14 out of 18 presidential elections from 1860 to 1928 (many of which were landslides), and 12 of the 15 presidents during that time were Republicans. The GOP even scored the largest presidential winning streak of both modern parties during that time, with six consecutive victories from 1860 to 1880. The only four Democratic victories—Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson both being elected and re-elected—were by close margins, and Wilson only won in 1912 because the Republican Party had split between Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

So when Trump talks about reclaiming the prosperity of the past rather than settling for Obama’s “new normal,” he isn’t just talking about economic prosperity. Maybe that’s why Democrats are so desperately pushing for the popular vote to decide presidential elections, instead of the electoral vote. They know what’s at stake, just as Trump does.

Photo credit: iStock/Getty Images

About Eric Lendrum

Eric Lendrum graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he was the Secretary of the College Republicans and the founding chairman of the school’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter. He has interned for Young America’s Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, and the White House, and has worked for numerous campaigns including the 2018 re-election of Congressman Devin Nunes (CA-22).

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15 responses to “How Trump’s Protectionism Could Save the GOP

  • The GOP made protectionism a key plank in its platform–in 1860!
    And won most of the elections the next 70 years.

    Whatever might be said about the economic merits of so-called “free trade,” the reality is that the voters don’t want it. And “free trade” depends on government action (or inaction) for its survival. That’s why actual “free trade” has never existed.
    The GOP can pursue a “free trade” chimera, never achieve it, and lose elections to boot. Or it can return to its roots, win elections, and enact its agenda.

    • Tariffs are a tool of international trade instruments. They are no different than any other tool. Used properly, they achieve the purpose for which they are intended: To protect national industries from international competition. Right now, this is what the electorate wants, and, I would claim, for very good reason.

      There can be little doubt that multilateral trade agreements have (a) never been popular and (b) have not been of substantive benefit to the Main Street economy. It’s not like the electorate is just willy-nilly deciding to ‘try protectionism’. The electorate has reasons — however unclearly articulated in some cases — for wanting a change in US trade policy.

      However, in the end, POTUS Trump and Cabinet are not engaging in ‘protectionism’ but what is being called ‘trade reciprocity’. Every ‘trading partner’ will get a ‘tariff’ that mirrors the tariffs — and tariff-like barriers — that our ‘trading partners’ implement from their side of the trade. Whether a ‘trading partner’ gets a tariff will depend entirely on their trade actions. The goal is a ‘level playing field’, nothing more.

  • The reason that “Conservatism inc” has opposed steel tariffs is that the idea that it will be an economic benefit has been debunked repeatedly by Milton Friedman and Thomas Sowell, among others. Bastiat pointed out the idiocy in the 19th century. Of course, this is because anyone even mildly “conservative” understands that wealth needs to be created and that bureaucrats shuffling it around do not produce it.

    It really is amazing the contortions that people will make in regard to government bureaucrats economically planning. It really isn’t complicated. If I spend $5 more on steel then someone producing steel makes an extra $5. That person spending $5 on what I produce does not pay me, it is only my own money coming back to me. How this would produce anything is never, ever explained, because it can’t be.

    That being said, as a bit of political calculation, I believe it was a stroke of genius. Trump will not lose a single vote because of the costs imposed by the Steel tariffs but union Steel workers who know that their jobs and salaries are not based upon productivity but political power will vote for Trump.

    • Just because Friedman and Sowell think that tariffs do not work, does not mean that they don’t. I respect Sowell, but he is wrong on this point. (I think Friedman was, at best, overrated and, at worst, a lunatic and his area of expertise was monetary policy, not trade.)

      All historical evidence is that tariffs can — and do — achieve their intent: To protect national industries from international competition. You may not like their intent (or mechanism of deployment) but tariffs do the job for which they are intended.

      As for the economy being run by ‘bureaucrats’ it strikes me as a shibboleth of economic anarchists. There are not, and never have been, durable, stable and efficiently-functioning markets outside the authority of the State.

      Also your statements about ‘economic planning’ are not appropo. All that POTUS Trump and Cabinet are proposing is trade reciprocity. What this means in practice is that the US will mirror any tariff — or tariff-like — trade action by our ‘trading partners’. The operation is essentially algorithmic, not bureaucratic.

      As for your description of the state of affairs with regard to the effect of tariffs (your comment about $5), it fails to describe the actual operations of any actual economy with regard to the effects of tariffs. You are ignoring the ways in which tariffs grow economies and make them (a) more complex and (b) create optionality (and leverage) in international trade.

      Spenser Morrison is one of the current thinkers who has a good handle on the limits of contemporary economic thought, especially on trade and ‘protectionism’. One of his best essays is entitled ‘Skip Economics Class, Play Settlers Of Catan Instead’ ( It’s a reasonably short and interesting read that provides some insights into the historical and current failure of economic thought to address actual economies and economic behavior.

      As for ‘Conservatism Inc’ there is more than one kind of ‘conservatism’ and a ‘conservatism’ that embraces the radical notion of ‘free trade’ doesn’t deserve to be called ‘conservatism’ at all.

  • But Eric, the people who support tariffs don’t live in fashionable areas! If we win with these rabble, what’s the point?/sarc

  • If idiotic economic policy, which Trump’s own new economic policy advisor acknowledges is idiotic, is what must be done to “save” the Republican Party, it’s no longer a political party worth saving.

    The very policy that would have tightened the noose on China was the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Kudlow urges we pursue, but Trump and his sycophants have ruled that out for precisely one reason: it was endorsed by Barack Hussein Obama. What Kudlow will find out is what we already know — that Trump’s demagoguery is what scores points with “the base”, not what is in the long-term economic and national security interest of the United States. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for Trump to fire him, too, for demonstrating sufficient loyalty to Trump himself, the country be damned.

    • Exactly how are a tariffs an ‘idiotic’ policy? China has already reneged on existing multilateral trade agreements at cost to the US economy. The TPP would have been no different. The US needs reciprocal, swiftly enforceable trade agreements, not 5000+ page bureaucratic boondoggles like TPP.

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