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Trump revives Republican protectionism on trade

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President Trump on Thursday signed two proclamations declaring tariffs on steel and aluminum. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Trump has promised to try to bring back American manufacturing jobs; he has succeeded in bringing back Republican trade protectionism.

Before imposing new steel and aluminum tariffs on Thursday, Trump cited past protectionists, many of them Republicans.

“Our greatest presidents all understood, from Washington to Lincoln to Jackson to Teddy Roosevelt, that America must have a strong, vibrant, and independent manufacturing base. Has to have it,” Trump said. “President McKinley, who felt very, very strongly about this — the country was very, very successful; we actually operated out of cash flow, if you can believe it. The protective tariff policy of the Republicans, he said, has made the lives of our countrymen sweeter, and brighter and brighter and brighter. It is the best for our citizenship and our civilization, and it opens up a higher and better destiny for our people.”

You don't hear contemporary Republicans talking up McKinley very often.

Like the steel industry, Republican protectionism never completely went away. There was conservative resistance to the North American Free Trade Agreement before Trump, although most Republicans in Congress and every living GOP president supported it at the time.

Conservative politico Pat Buchanan, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum all ran second in the Republican presidential primaries, with strong conservative support, while to varying degrees dissenting from the GOP’s recent free-trade consensus.

Buchanan, in particular, has long defended protectionism’s Republican and conservative pedigrees.

“From Lincoln to William McKinley to Theodore Roosevelt, and from Warren Harding through Calvin Coolidge, the Republican Party erected the most awesome manufacturing machine the world had ever seen,” the columnist and three-time presidential candidate wrote recently. “And, as the party of high tariffs through those seven decades, the GOP was rewarded by becoming America's Party.”

More controversially, Sen. Reed Smoot of Utah and Rep. Willis Hawley of Oregon of Smoot-Hawley tariff fame, as well as Rep. Joseph Fordney of Michigan and Sen. Porter McCumber of North Dakota of the Fordney-McCumber tariffs, were Republicans.

Even Republican free traders like Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush selectively imposed tariffs.

But Trump is comprehensively protectionist in a way recent Republicans have not been. "Today, I’m defending America's national security by placing tariffs on foreign imports of steel and aluminum," he said.

Many other Republicans took issue with Trump’s decision and defended the party’s commitment to free trade.

“I disagree with this action and fear its unintended consequences,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said in a statement. “I am pleased that the president has listened to those who share my concerns and included an exemption for some American allies, but it should go further. We will continue to urge the administration to narrow this policy so that it is focused only on those countries and practices that violate trade law.”

"Simply put: This is a tax hike on American manufacturers, workers, and consumers. Slapping aluminum and steel imports with tariffs of this magnitude is misguided,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said in a statement. “It undermines the benefits that the new tax law provides and runs counter to our goal of advancing pro-growth trade policies that will keep America competitive in the 21st century global economy.”

Hatch is a frequent Trump ally and the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

“We’re on the verge of a painful and stupid trade war, and that’s bad," Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said in a statement. "This isn't just bad for farmers and ranchers in Nebraska who need to buy a new tractor, it’s also bad for the moms and dads who will lose their manufacturing jobs because fewer people can buy a more expensive product."

"Temporary exceptions for Canada and Mexico are encouraging, but bad policy is still bad policy, and these constant NAFTA threats are nuts," he added.

Sasse is a regular Trump critic. So is Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who promised to introduce legislation rolling back the president’s tariff hikes.

“A U.S. tariff is a tax on Americans,” tweeted Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich. “It is among the most egregious of taxes, levied not for revenue raising but rather for social engineering and corporate welfare — benefiting the few at the expense of millions of Americans.”

Republicans worry that the tariffs and any international retaliation will wipe out some of the tax cut they just passed and mitigating its pro-growth effects. In his 1998 protectionist polemic The Great Betrayal, however, Buchanan argued that tax cuts and tariff increases could coincide.

“The old Republicans taxed work, savings, and investment 0 percent, and foreign goods at 40 percent,” he wrote. We do the opposite. We tax the return on savings and work at 40 percent, and foreign goods at 0 percent.”

That was Coolidge’s approach, Buchanan argued, and it is seemingly Trump’s.

Trump’s electoral coalition is also dependent on success in industrial states. He won in 2016 because he carried industrial states like Ohio, turning Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania for the first time since Reagan was president.

After working with more conventional Republicans on shared priorities like tax cuts and Obamacare repeal during his first year in office, he has since shifted to more distinctly populist parts of his program: restricting immigration, proposing an infrastructure package, and now the tariffs.

But working-class voters would also disproportionately bear the cost of any increase in the price in consumer goods while plenty of other Republicans have constituents employed in steel-using industries that would be harmed by the tariffs.