The new party of protectionism

The GOP has a tough-talking new boss. And he doesn't much care for the elite free-marketeers.

An elephant behind a fence.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Tom Grundy / Alamy Stock Photo, Gerry Pearce / Alamy Stock Photo)

Republican lawmakers are not happy with President Trump's decision to slap tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. Their public reactions as Trump begins to translate his protectionist campaign rhetoric into actual trade policy have ranged from the politely restrained ("I disagree with this action," said House Speaker Paul Ryan) to the scathing ("Nuts," lamented Sen. Ben Sasse).

But the problem is bigger than Trump taking positions on trade that most conservative elites find economically illiterate and a large portion of the Republican base siding, at least until they have to pay more for a six pack of beer, with the president. The dilemma for believers in free markets and limited government is that the only American political coalition that has ever proven capable of advancing these ideals is increasingly made up of people whose ideological commitments to things like free trade and Ryan-style entitlement reform are tenuous at best.

At issue isn't just the usual inconsistency of railing against welfare queens while insisting that the government keep its hands off Medicare. A large, critical slice of the electorate that makes center-right governance possible pines for the economy and communities Trump promises to restore far more than it wants to travel Ryan's Path to Prosperity.

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Trump didn't create this trend, but he has accelerated it. He is making the Republican Party toxic to the very college-educated, suburban voters who find old-style fiscal conservatism most appealing. He is replacing them with voters for whom that conservatism is at best a secular version of the Protestant work ethic.

The suburbanites may find their way back into the fold the next time the GOP nominates a candidate with more refined social media habits. But the damage being done among millennials could be more permanent. There was never much evidence for the proposition, popular among some libertarians, that users of such free-market innovations as Uber, the iPhone, and Airbnb would be inherently more hostile to big government to begin with. And the Trump era has been even less kind to this thesis.

What Trump has done, however, is show that Republicans have a path to victory in the Electoral College through industrial states. Trump won Ohio and flipped Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin for the first time since the 1980s. Mitt Romney did not.

Maybe Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, or John Kasich could have created a different map. Nevertheless, each of them also demonstrated the difficulty they would have testing that theory with the current Republican primary electorate — you can't make it to November without first securing the nomination.

It also might be true that Trump's blue-collar appeal can't be transferred to other Republicans, much like Barack Obama could not simply gift his high minority and millennial turnout to Hillary Clinton. But embracing some version of Trump's populism, at least until tariff hikes are tried and found wanting, seems like the best way for the GOP to give it a shot. And manufacturing job growth is currently on the march.

Not long ago, it looked like things might turn out differently. The Tea Party seemed to be a much more libertarian manifestation of the late columnist Sam Francis' Middle American Radicals before reverting to "peasants with pitchforks" type.

Many of us also hoped a free-market or libertarian populism would scramble preconceived notions about big government being on the side of the "little guy" as opposed to a protector of privilege, challenging crony capitalism and an industrial policy that allows Washington bureaucrats to pick economic winners and losers.

Instead Trump lopped off the free-market and libertarian modifiers, preferring to pick winners and losers with tariffs that protect steel industry jobs at the expense of a potentially much larger number of jobs in steel-using industries.

The ease with which the country lurched from a supposed "libertarian moment" to Trump's economic nationalism, using some of the same political forces, ought to tell us these changes might not be permanent. Our politics are more volatile than ever; there are few permanent victories or defeats.

It is nevertheless striking that Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican in the limited-government tradition of Barry Goldwater, was shaking his fist at Trump's tariffs weeks after concluding there is not a large enough constituency for his views inside the GOP.

Flake pledged to draft legislation nullifying the Trump tariffs — presumably in preparation for drafting angry letters to the editor about them in retirement.

The power of limited-government conservatives is on the wane. The GOP belongs to Trump. And like it or not, that means it is the party of populist economic nationalism.

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