Conservatives Try Flattery, Whining to Get Trump to Turn on Tariffs

Tariffs equal nationalism equal socialism!


While of course it’s depressing to see our once-great nation brought low, at least the Trump presidency has been great for this column. For years I’ve watched conservatives go on and on about their proud intellectual traditions, their patriotism, and their keen stewardship of the public fisc. To see them now prostrating themselves before an incoherent buffoon who treats his high office as an opportunity to shake down everyone from MAGA rubes to foreign potentates; who is clearly unacquainted with, and uninterested in, the Constitution; who, abetted by alleged Republican deficit hawks, cheerfully added trillions to the national debt — well, in the words of Kenny Bania, that’s gold, Jerry.

Things got more hilarious last week as Trump made his right-wing fans look like chumps again by swatting away their free trade mumbo jumbo and placing huge tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum.

While some gung ho rightbloggers supported it, apparently because it came from Trump, more mainstream conservative wise men struggled to explain to The Leader why it was, in this case anyway, wrong to brush off right-wing gospel.

Especially since the globalization wars of the 1990s, free-traderism has been consensus reality for American politicians. While free global trade has generally meant cheaper goods for us, it’s also thought to have cost jobs and depress wages. Protective tariffs are a traditional remedy for that imbalance.

In his campaign, Trump floated tariffs to address his voters’ “economic anxiety.” But he hadn’t done much to put them into effect, and both labor unions and liberals with large blue-collar constituents have been trying to leverage that anxiety for themselves. (One of the amusing side effects of Trump’s blurts was the statements of support for the tariff action that emerged from the AFL-CIO and Democrats in steel-dependent states like Ohio congress member Marcy Kaptur and Pennsylvania senator Bob Casey.)

Low-budget Trump pundits applauded the move, too, mainly on the grounds that Trump made it.

Informed that other countries might retaliate by imposing tariffs on American products, the Last Tradition frothed, “Bring It!”:

Let’s see how this works out which I believe will be in favor of the United States. For too long other countries having been taking advantage of the U.S. because prior presidents didn’t have the skill sets to push back against unfair trade practices. President Trump intimately knows business because he’s from that world. He’s not an academic or a politician who always act like they know what they’re doing when they really have no clue.

I think this is the guy the New York Times always interviews in its weekly visits to Pennsylvania diners.

Even some less mouth-breathery outlets tried to make lemonade out of Trump’s lemon. At the Washington Examiner, Tom Rogan wrote, “There is one little saving grace here: This will upset China.”

If you wonder why upsetting a trading partner whose wage slaves make many of our consumer goods so cheap was a “saving grace” (ruling out moral reasons, because in this case you’d have to), Rogan explained: “He might be able to get Beijing to cut off its export and financial capital flows to North Korea.… If China cuts off its lifelines to Kim [Jong Un], Kim will have no choice but to come crawling to the negotiating table.” Who knew China was so easy to muscle? Save a seat for Taiwan at the United Nations!

But most credentialed conservatives were strongly opposed. In a lead editorial National Review tarred tariffs with the most fearsome of conservative slurs: “Tariffs are a sales tax.”

NR legacy pledge Jonah Goldberg moped, “I get that we label protectionism ‘populist’ these days — though I’m old enough to remember when protectionism was a technocratic cause.” Apparently Goldberg is not old enough to remember, or to have learned from high school history, that Republican support for protectionist tariffs began with Abraham Lincoln — earlier if you take the Whigs into account — decades before anyone ever heard of technocracy.

Goldberg then revealed the real problem with steel tariffs: They’re “nationalism,” or at least reminded him of nationalism enough that he switched to that topic halfway through his essay — and nationalism “inevitably leads to centralization,” and (drum roll for the logical trapeze act, please) “the ethos of nationalism, taken to its logical conclusion, is no different from the ethos of socialism taken to its logical conclusion.… That’s what the New Deal was. That’s what Wilson’s War Socialism was.” Next thing you know, we’ll all be standing in line ten hours for a roll of toilet paper! Thanks a lot, Honest Abe!

The Federalist at this writing has kept its mouth shut about Trump’s tariffs, either to protect The Leader, or because it remains in all-hands-on-deck mode over the teenage Parkland massacre survivors who threaten unlimited AR-15s suffrage with their hurtful words.

Some of the old workhorses of conservatism saddled up for Trump-wrangling duty. “In fact, tariff hikes are really tax hikes,” protested Reagan-era free market enthusiast Larry Kudlow, joined by Arthur B. Laffer and Stephen Moore, in a widely syndicated article. These Three Caballeros of Rapacious Capitalism bade The Leader pursue instead “tax, regulatory, energy, and other pro-America policy changes that bring jobs and capital back to the United States.”

Perhaps remembering near the end that they were addressing not a roundtable of right-wing Chamber of Commerce types but a callous egomaniac, Kudlow & Co. finally appealed to his vanity: “Trump has made America almost overnight the best and most reliable place in the world to invest,” they keened. They also added that Reagan regretted his own protectionist actions on steel (taken to protect American icon Harley-Davidson), on the off chance Trump remembered who Reagan was.

The Washington Examiner headlined “Trump can learn from Obama’s tariff debacle,” perhaps gambling that, since his whole presidency is based on pique against Obama, Trump would be compelled to do the Opposite George thing.

So why did Trump make his tariff announcement? Some pundits opine it was fallout from an intellectual struggle among his advisers — no one was dumb enough to suggest the intellectual struggle was Trump’s, or that the decision was made out of a sense of patriotic duty. A few outlets did notice, though, that Carl Icahn, the Wall Street raider who helped steer Trump’s campaign and was set to join his administration until he became a political liability, dumped millions in steel-dependent stocks a week before Trump lowered the boom.

Given what we all know but few of us have the guts to admit about the Trump griftocracy, that may be the only event relevant to the tariffs. And maybe that’s the silver lining for all the sweaty free-traders — because it suggests Trump may, as he did after his recent off-message ramblings about guns, simply and without explanation reverse himself later. Why keep up the grift longer than you have to?