Free Trade

Trump's Trade War Is Making America Love Trade Again. So Why Are Democrats Going Protectionist?

The leading candidates are even more hostile to free trade than Trump.


President Donald Trump's new round of tariffs on Chinese goods is going into effect even as we speak. But the more Trump escalates his trade war, the more unpopular protectionism gets with American voters, especially Democratic ones. So all the Democratic presidential candidates are sprinting to put distance between their trade policies and Trump's America Firstism, right? Wrong!

Indeed, the party's leading presidential contenders, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.), who are setting the tone for the rest of the pack, are functionally identical to if not worse than Trump on this issue. The reason is that they don't think that average Democratic voters care enough about trade to punish them for their protectionism.

It seems like Trump's trade bashing has done more to bring people around to the cause of free trade in two years than Scottish* political economist Adam Smith's canonical defense in The Wealth of Nations did in nearly 250. Indeed, literally every time the "chosen one" saber-rattles against China, Americans become more positively disposed toward trade. The Chicago Council Survey found last year that support for trade among Americans had touched an all-time high, with 82 percent of respondents saying it was good for the economy, 85 percent saying it was good for consumers like them, and 67 percent saying it was good for America. These findings were pretty much confirmed last month by a Pew Research poll, which found that 65 percent of Americans believe that free trade is good for the country. Two years ago, only 50 percent did.

Democratic voters in particular, Pew found, had jettisoned their 1990s hostility to trade completely. About 73 percent of those who were or leaned Democratic now agree that trade is good for the country, a 13-point jump even from two years ago. Likewise, a Hill-HarrisX poll found that 58 percent of Democrats believe that Trump's China negotiations would result in fewer jobs and economic opportunities.

Even more to the point, in Michigan—a swing state that has historically veered Democratic but Trump narrowly won—a statewide poll by the Detroit Regional Chamber found a few weeks ago that voters believe that tariffs on cars made in foreign countries hurt the state's automotive industry, that tariffs on Chinese imports hurt Michigan farmers, and that tariffs on foreign products hurt consumers like themselves.

Democratic presidential contenders have concluded that all this represents mere revulsion at Trump's style, not a serious change of heart. But Americans would have to be blind to not see the riches that trade has delivered them.

The Peterson Institute for International Economics has estimated that expansion of free trade has generated $2.1 trillion for America between 1950 and 2016. That works out on average to $18,000 in income for American households. These gains have gone disproportionately to working-class households that shop at Walmarts stacked with foreign goods. If an American hasn't felt a bigger pinch from the soaring prices of indigenously generated health care, education, and other services, it is because of the plummeting price of foreign goods.

But last year, for the first time in a decade, the prices of furniture, clothes, and electronics stopped falling. And if Trump does not back off his trade war with China, only divine intervention would stop them from spiking.

Nor are consumers the only ones getting hurt. Producers, the intended beneficiaries of Trump's trade war, are too.

China's retaliatory tariffs on American soybeans, wheat, and pork are decimating farmers. The National Farmers Union has issued a scathing condemnation of Trump's trade war. "[I]nstead of looking to solve existing problems in our agricultural sector, this administration has just created new ones," its statement says. "Between burning bridges with all of our biggest trading partners and undermining our domestic biofuels industry, President Trump is making things worse, not better." Meanwhile, more than 60 percent of imported goods are used in production, so increased tariffs means increased production costs for American manufacturers.

Given all this, Democrats should be mounting a vigorous case against Trump's trade policies, pointing out that beggaring-your-partner trade wars aren't "easy to win"; they are self-injurious.

But that is not what they are doing. They are harrumphing against Trump's Twitter diplomacy and his hyper-belligerent style. But they are otherwise unwilling to stick up for trade or even defend the era of trade liberalization that President Bill Clinton ushered in with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the normalization of trade ties with China.

Among the top 10 Democrats who will be on the debate stage next week, only former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who represented the NAFTA-dependent border town of El Paso and is polling at 2 percent, is willing to defend the treaty. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who voted for NAFTA when he was a senator, has gone mum. He slams Trump's "irresponsible tariff war" but then undercuts his own criticism by declaring that "we do need to get tough with China." Sen. Kamala Harris (D–Calif.) tosses offhand comments about Trump's tariffs being a "trade tax" but then quickly abandons the subject. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has lambasted Trump's yammerings about America's export imbalance with China as a red herring, but otherwise he is opaque about his plans.

But there is no ambiguity with Sanders and Warren. Sanders has always been an unrepentant protectionist. If he could have his druthers, he would ban trade with any country poorer than America on the Marxist theory that competition with lower-wage workers leads to the immiseration of the American working class.

Warren is even more ideologically ambitious. Like Trump, she couches her plans under the rubric of fair trade. But for Trump, in theory if not practice, that means forcing other countries to slash their trade barriers and moving toward a no-tariff world where no one has an artificial advantage over America. Warren wants to use America's economic might to forcibly enlist countries in a leftist crusade. As The Nation's Todd Tucker approvingly notes, "Warren's trade plan is as much a theory of power as it is a set of ideas."

She has drawn up a tall list of preconditions that countries must meet to qualify to trade with America. These cover almost everything on the leftist wish list, including protecting religious freedom and human rights, signing the Paris Accords, fighting public corruption, combating sex trafficking, stopping tax evasion, and enforcing labor rights. She'd renegotiate every existing trade deal in accordance with her purity criteria. But given that no country on the planet, not even America, currently lives up to her lofty standards, global trade would basically come to a grinding halt under her.

This is totally cuckoo, and it makes Trump look like a veritable trade dove. "Elizabeth Warren's trade policy is even more protectionist and unilateralist than Donald Trump's," writes Daniel Drezner in The Washington Post. Yet if she's the Democratic nominee, he says he'd "hold his nose" and vote for her.

And that, in a nutshell, is why Sanders and Warren have no qualms about indulging their extremist anti-trade fantasies. They believe that moderates are so desperate to get rid of Trump that they will vote for any Democrat. In addition, an extremist strategy will energize their progressive and labor base. A majority of voters in a swing state like Michigan might be put off by their protectionism. But labor unions that Trump managed to woo away with his trade-bashing might return to the Democratic fold if they double down on his mantle.

Time will tell if this strategy will work. But one thing is for certain: If Sanders or Warren win, they will hammer the final nail in the Trump-made coffin of free trade, no matter how much ordinary Americans want the cause to live on.

A version of this column originally appeared in The Week.

Correction: The article originally identified Adam Smith as English instead of Scottish. The error is deeply regretted.

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  1. "The reason is that they don't think that average Democratic voters care enough about trade to punish them for their protectionism."

    In order to care you'd have to understand economics. If you think the people in favor of the Green New Deal and medicare for the world understand anything about economics I've got some bad news for you.

  2. Not only do those two still look constipated, they look like they're touching themselves.


    1. Those are their O faces.

    2. Chances are one of them are wearing red Depends.

  3. Because they subscribe to an ancient philosophy that disdains grubby commerce, and they actually believe in it?

    1. Imagine how different the world would be if Karl Marx actually had to work for a living...

  4. "But given that no country on the planet, not even America, currently lives up to her lofty standards,"

    That's why she is popular with progressives. She's the scolding professor, always requesting more from the teachers pets that make up the liberal-tarian beltway. The aspiring mommy pushing the nanny state.

  5. "The leading candidates are even more hostile to free[dom]" than Trump. It isn't restricted to trade.

  6. "So Why Are Democrats Going Protectionist?"

    Lol, Shikha.

    Because they don't believe the carefully-crafted Media push-polls intended to make the Orange Man look bad, either.

    The post-Cold War dogma that free trade and open borders are always beneficial is dead, and it ain't coming back to life in 2020 or any time after that.

    While allowing a flood of cheap goods and cheap labor has been tremendously advantageous to the upper classes, it hasn't been so hot for everyone else. The Democrats have figured out what Trump knew back in 2016, and they're not going to cede the issue to him again.

    1. The employment rate and labor force participation rate are both way up. Real wages are also rising for the first time since the 1990s. And Dalmia just cannot understand why the public hasn’t rejected the evil Trade War!!

      1. "Real wages"? Whatever. From a Koch / Reason perspective, the most important question is "Are billionaires seeing their net worths grow at a sufficient rate?" And the answer is a resounding no: Jeff Bezos is down over $10 billion this year.

        1. Wage isnt wealth.

    2. "The post-Cold War dogma that free trade and open borders are always beneficial is dead, and it ain’t coming back to life in 2020 or any time after that."

      Actually, if you paid attention to Nick Gillespie you'd know that more Americans than ever agree with the statement "Immigration is a good thing." So regardless of the Democrats' current position on trade, their embrace of unlimited, unrestricted immigration is smart politics. This will be clear in 2020 when they win the Presidency on an open borders platform.


      1. Immigration, not illegal immigration.

        1. I agree! Give all of the illegal sub-humans their "magic papers" and all will be well!

    3. Actually the cheap goods and cheap labor have been good very everyone. The problem is that jobs have shifted and rural Red States don't shift as fast. Detroit sucks because automotive jobs moved to Kentucky and California. Don't blame Japan for it, Japan is an economic basket case.

      I come from California, and farm labor here in the fruit basket of the world has ALWAYS been done with immigrant labor. Sometimes the immigrants where from Oklahoma, sometimes from Japan, but today are from Mexico. Nothing has changed here, other than the minimum wage preventing teens from getting a summer job picking tomatoes.

      The big shift is from rural to urban, and ain't no amount of protectionism gonna fix that. Agriculture is bigger than ever, but the jobs aren't in the picking, the jobs are in the technology that drives it. Small town still has a lot of manufacturing, but the 50s dream of a single factory supporting an entire town of unskilled workers is dead.

      The economy has changed, because that's what economies do. We're not living in the 20s, or 50s, or 80s anymore. We're entering the new 20s, and it's time to stop whining about how the world is changing. There are things we can do to help adjust, but running to the government for protection is not one of them.

      1. There's no doubt the economy has changed, and that rural America has suffered the brunt of it.

        But in a democratic society if your response to wrenching economic changes is to say "Welp, sucks to be you. Better learn to code, you dumb hicks" then you're not going to win very many elections.

        Libertarians always assume that the logic of their policies is self-evident, and if people don't get what they are saying then they're stupid, or stubborn, or Reason's new favorite term, racist.

        That might satisfy their sense of superiority but it won't get them more than 1% of the vote, thus relegating them to the sidelines while hucksters like Trump win the election.

  7. Democratic presidential contenders have concluded that all this represents mere revulsion at Trump's style, not a serious change of heart.

    And they’re probably not wrong.

  8. When the bulls fight, only the grass suffers.

  9. lol how can one person have so many dumb illogical takes.

    1. I want to see a town hall featuring jeff vs Shikha.

  10. also Elizabeth Warren is probably one plank away from whatever is left of the Italian Republican Fascist Party from suing for copyright infringement.

  11. "So Why Are Democrats Going Protectionist?"

    They always were .
    But opposing Trump seems to come first

    1. What's odd is that the Republicans never were. If I had to take a guess I would say the protectionists in the Republican Party are mostly ex-Democrats pissed that the Democrat shift towards extreme social justice issues. We know that the NeoCons came from the Left, why not the protectionists too?

      Crazy that a party that still worships Reagan thinks trade and immigration are bogeymen.

      1. Eh the protectionist shift is Trump. He saw an opportunity with the message to carve out the midwest as a path to electoral victory running as a republican was the easiest path as they are a bunch of pussies and don't have the media protection. Plus if he won the red states would get in line because they hate the dems.

        1. Trade protectionilsm is pretty much the only issue I think Trump actually cares about. The rest of the policy that eminants from the white house is carving out a winning coalition and white noise.

          1. Hes not protectionist. He just hates shitty agreements where the U.S. is disadvantaged due to the agreement.

            1. I don't think he really cares about the agreements so much as putting his name on the top of whatever new deal we shit out. But maybe.

              1. Trump offered free trade with our trading partner and they refused.

                I think Trump knows he can put his name on it AND it be good for America.

        2. When did we have free and open trade with china? I can show you decades of anti free trade by china.

          1. All trade restrictions and taxation began Jan 20, 2017.

      2. Republicans have been calling out Chinas trade policies for decades. Trump is just the first to act.

      3. "What’s odd is that the Republicans never were."

        Never were?

        Historically, Republicans were quite fond of tariffs. Better than direct taxation.

      4. Reagan was a protectionist. Threatened tariffs are why foreign manufactures opened auto assembly plants in the US. Nixon was a free trader. Electronics manufacturing in the US died under Nixon.

      5. Reagan got utterly fucked in his amnesty offer in 1986.

        Conservatives recognize that and recognize that "Amnesty now and border enforcement LATER" is a lie. They will NEVER do it.

        1. +100

    2. Yep, 41% of Dems approved of NAFTA in 2008, compared to 71% approval in 2017. It has nothing to do with NAFTA, they just have to approve of it now because Trump doesn't

      1. +1000

  12. Trump: "Look how dumb I am!"

    Democrats: "Oh yeah. Here, hold my beer!"

    1. Good one, I like it!!!

      Trump's protectionism is BAD, 'cause he says he belongs to the "R" party (according to the Dem party).

      DEMOCRAT party protectionism will be GOOD, because... Because it will be DEMOCRAT driven!

  13. And that, in a nutshell, is why Sanders and Warren have no qualms about indulging their extremist anti-trade fantasies. They believe that moderates are so desperate to get rid of Trump that they will vote for any Democrat.

    They also nominated a POS candidate in 2016 on the theory that Barack Obama's election hadn't proven that America wasn't as racist as they believed but that his election proved that the evil racist white men who voted Republican had been finally reduced to permanent minority status and that there would never again be a Republican or a straight white male as President. Which is why they were so adamant that Trump must have cheated to get elected, they had defeated the Uruk-hai and it simply was not possible that their armies had re-assembled. Just as adamant as they were that anybody to the right of Hillary Clinton were the Uruk-hai. This time, they will be prepared and there's not going to be any surprise victories by the Dark Lord's minions. Since victory is guaranteed, why not indulge your wildest fantasies of what victory might bring? It's like if you're offered a free car of your choosing, you'd be crazy to pick a Honda Accord when there's a Rolls Royce Phantom sitting right there.

    1. I'd take the Honda Accord everytime those oil changes, property taxes and insurance premiums would be fucking murder.

  14. The Peterson Institute for International Economics has estimated that expansion of free trade has generated $2.1 trillion for America between 1950 and 2016. That works out on average to $18,000 in income for American households

    Unfortunately, that "average" has gone mainly to corporations. And the trade expansion has resulted in many low skill US workers losing their jobs and linked to massive increases in government spending and regulation.

    “Bill Gates walks into a bar and everyone inside instantly becomes a millionaire, on average.”

    1. I spent last weekend in north-central Idaho. While Idaho's economy overall is booming, especially around Boise, the town of Pierce - once home to a massive sawmill - is a dirt-poor backwater.

      The reason Trump is president today is that in 2016 the political establishments of both parties thought such a situation was perfectly normal and desirable. Like Shikha, they were insulated in their Beltway bubble and couldn't even conceive that a significant percentage of voters would think otherwise.

      1. The situation you describe (dirt poor sawmill town) is indeed normal and to be expected in a free market system.

  15. "It seems like Trump's trade bashing has done more to bring people around to the cause of free trade"

    Cute that you think that.

    The Left REFLEXIVELY hates anything Trump proposes. If Trump declared "I love breathing", the Left would die of asphyxia.

  16. Tariffs, and protectionism in general, take decisions that should be made by individuals (do I buy this or that?) and give them to the government. To support them is to support the principle that government bureaucrats make better decisions than free people. So they have a natural home in the Democratic party.

    The far, far bigger concern is why the Republican party, which fancies itself the party of limited government, has allowed King Donald to take it back to the days of Herbert Hoover. Where is their principled opposition?

  17. It's not too surprising. Come on; they're socialists! They believe the economy should be centrally planned and run by "experts" at the top (i.e. them). They certainly wouldn't exclude trade from the Great Leap Forward.

    1. Dalmia seems to think that the only reason a Dem candidate would stake out a position on any issue would be to be the anti-Trump. They have no ideology of their own to advance.

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