Trump, Reagan, and Why Republicans Flip-Flopped on Free Trade

The Donald is more like The Gipper on trade policy than you think. And not in a good way.


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Donald Trump's economic advisers have gone from ridiculing tariffs and subsidies to promoting pure protectionism because of the paradigm-shifting, reality-distorting, cringe-inducing, and corrupting influence of power. The Republican Party's U-turn on free trade is the sad story of a team of presidential advisers with two opinions for every man. It's a cautionary tale of how the temptations of political power promote personality over principle.

Before Trump took office, his advisers stood for free trade, which Ronald Reagan helped make central to the GOP.

Take former Congressman Mike Pence. In the House of Representatives, he voted to normalize trade relations with China. He praised NAFTA, voted for the Central American Free Trade Agreement, supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and backed free trade agreements with Australia, Singapore, Chile, and Peru.

Even though Pence represented a state with over a hundred thousand auto workers, he voted against then-president Obama's corporate bailouts on principle.

After joining team Trump, Pence was a changed man. Rescued from an unpopular governorship, Pence was thrust into the national spotlight and his political career was given a new life—and more importantly, a new identity.

His conversion to protectionism was so sudden and complete that he had a hard time convincing journalists of his new faith.

As Pence hit the talk show circuit, we learned that the trade agreements he had supported over his political career were now "bad deal[s]" and "up for renegotiation." A month before he was sworn in as vice president, Pence went from badmouthing banking bailouts to bankrolling the Carrier corporation in his home state. One year after supporting free trade with China, he declared it enemy number one.

About the same time, Trump's campaign adviser Stephen Moore and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus were stressing key elements of protectionism in their speeches and public appearances. Moore told a group of top Republicans that the Grand Old Party was no longer the party of Ronald Reagan. "I used to be a free trader," he said. "The political reality is there's a backlash against trade. Whether we like it or not, we better adapt the rules in ways that benefit American workers more, or free trade is not going to flourish."

The Republican Party's bedrock principles are shifting at the rate of one presidential adviser at a time. After a year in office, members of Trump's economic team have either adopted the commander in chief's line on trade, or kept a low profile, or resigned.

As the U.S follows other countries down the path of economic nationalism, advocates for free trade are losing their voice. Fewer are making a compelling public case for free trade, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman did for decades.

It's a worldview that Moore, Priebus, Kudlow, and Vice President Pence all shared before joining team Trump and that Ronald Reagan stood up for inconsistently in the 1980s. Although NAFTA and the precursor to the World Trade Organization were born from his administration, Reagan also raised a 100 percent tariff on Japanese electronics, and a 45 percent tariff on Japanese motorcycles. He slapped export quotas on cars and machine tools and Canadian lumber and sugar. Enough economic nationalism to make our current protectionist-in-chief proud.

Which goes to say: Maybe president Trump is more Reagan-esque than he gives even himself credit for.

Produced, written, narrated, and edited by Todd Krainin.

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