Why populists of the left and right are soulmates on trade
President Trump seems set on launching a trade war with, well, pretty much everybody. And that may include a good chunk of his own political party.
Indeed, the usually docile congressional Republicans are coming out in force against Trump's protectionist spasm, upgrading their response from the usual "deeply concerned" to "extremely worried." For those keeping score at home, that's basically DEFCON 1 (you know, the bad one) for these folks.
Trump's tariffs do have Republican supporters, of course, and they are pretty important. Many of the new blue-collar GOP voters probably favor the idea of global tariffs on aluminum and steel, at least those who don't work in domestic industries that use those commodities. Then there are hardcore Trumpers, such as alt-right conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec, who tweeted: "Enacting tariffs helps protect America's economic sovereignty much like building the Wall will help protect America's physical sovereignty."
But the MAGA crowd isn't the only place where you'll find support for Trump's anti-trade actions. Glance to the left, and you'll see that some progressives kind of like them, too — although they typically couch their approval in an "even a racist, sexist, broken clock is right twice a day" tone.
For instance: In a New York Times op-ed, Josh Bivens, research director of the lefty Economic Policy Institute, said concern about trade wars and global instability "were overblown" and represented "reflexive anti-Trump sentiment rather than careful economic reasoning" about actions that "may do some good." (Of course, the piece included a boilerplate sentence about Trump's "xenophobia" and "bigotry.")
Other progressives still managed to slam Trump — but for not being protectionist enough. Matthew Stoller of the ironically named Open Markets Institute called Trump's tariffs "insignificant next to the terrifying reach China has to project authoritarianism into the U.S." and lambasted the consensus economic take on tariffs as "free trade gibberish."
Given how controversial Trump's moves are, even saying nothing about them could be interpreted as tacit approval. Here's looking at you, #resistance hero Bernie Sanders. America's most famous democratic socialist has had precisely nothing to say about the tariffs. Maybe it's because he supports them. After all, Sanders promised during his presidential run that he would impose tariffs on China "until they stop dumping steel into the United States." He has also said he would "be delighted" to work with Trump on trade. No wonder Trump claimed during the campaign that he and Sanders were "similar on trade." (A "mostly true" claim, according to Politifact.)
Why the common ground? Well, because populists gonna populist, whether they are on the Bernie Bro left or the "drain the swamp" right, although each side may be loathe to admit how much they have in common. But in reality, it's quite a bit. Both are deeply suspicious of capitalism as a positive force in bringing about a peaceful and prosperous society. Both rhetorically champion "the people" against "the elite" or "the establishment." And both tend to ignore possible constraints on their actions, which is one reason they dislike markets. (This tends to be true of populists everywhere.) As presidential candidates, Sanders and Trump had the two most implausible economic plans, with both assuming super-fast economic growth to make their numbers work. When you're a populist politician with big dreams of Medicare for all or mega-tax cuts for all, it's a real drag to have to worry about debt-to-GDP ratios or what bond investors might think.
Populists of the left and right have another common enemy: America's tech giants. The aforementioned Open Markets Institute is probably the leading voice on the progressive left for breaking up the megaplatforms or highly regulating them. Nor should it be surprising that Peter Navarro, Trump's uberhawk behind the Trump tariff proposals, is also a big antitrust advocate who has compared the big U.S. companies of today to their early 20th century counterparts who "[wielded] their rapacious monopoly power to gouge consumers and interfere with the efficient functioning of the American economy." Do American consumers really feel like Amazon and Facebook and Google are gouging them in some way?
Populism is where the energy is in both parties right now. But Democrats and Republicans, especially those who think market capitalism is still the best path to shared prosperity, should be aware of where it might take them. As Rudiger Dornbusch and Sebastian Edwards concluded their 1991 paper "The Macroeconomics of Populism," populist policies "do ultimately fail; and when they fail it is always at a frightening cost to the very groups that were supposed to be favored."