CLEVELAND – With precious little attention, the Republican Party’s attitude toward international trade has officially shifted. Gone is the 2012 platform’s strong endorsement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and trade in general. Instead, the new platform reflects Donald Trump’s more skeptical attitude toward trade deals (Trump has referred to the TPP as “a rape of our country”).
“I expected it to be contentious, and it wasn’t,” said a co-chair of the platform subcommittee on the economy. “People all seemed to be going toward the same goal here, which is to get the candidate elected.”
A minor thing. Unless you are actually an economic conservative who cares anything about jobs and economic growth. A commitment to free trade is not an extraneous add-on to conservative economics; it is the application of conservative economics on a global scale. What Trump has proposed, according to GOP strategist Vin Weber, is “to reverse a Republican stance taken since WWII and embrace the notion of a state-planned economy.” In threatening a 35 percent tariff on many goods imported from Mexico and a 45 percent tariff on imports from China – and by pledging to punish specific American businesses for behavior he doesn’t approve of – Trump is attempting to assume Hugo Chavez-like powers over global commerce.
What would be the result? A massive tariff is the equivalent of a massive, regressive consumption tax. Prices would rise for just about everything – especially the kind of products sold to working- and middle-class people at Home Depot and Wal-Mart. Since about half of American imports are supplies used by firms to make other things, economic activity would slow. American jobs would be lost. (Some economic models predict that Trump’s tariffs could cost upward of 1.4 million jobs over the next four years.) And the imposition of high tariffs would almost certainly provoke a broader trade war, which is a proven and reliable method to cause a global recession.
In the parlance of economics, this policy approach is “bonkers.” According to many economists, the prime culprit in the decline of manufacturing jobs is technology rather than global trade. And Trump’s promise to reverse globalization through his awesome negotiating skills is magical thinking, distracting attention from actual policies that might help educate and train American workers for a 21st-century economy.
Republican leaders – at least those with ambitions in the age of Trump, such as Mike Pence and Newt Gingrich – have been quick to shed decades of economic conviction. (Pence was a champion of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s, arguing the “the right course is not to turn back the clock, to close our borders,” but to recognize that “trade means jobs.”) And the current attitude of the party itself can best be described as supine. Some of the most basic conservative economic views, it seems, are expendable “to get the candidate elected.”
This is the story of the Cleveland convention so far. Trump has pushed. Republicans have generally caved. Those who haven’t – like a few on the convention rules committee – have been crushed without even the pretense of magnanimity.
The fate of those who come around to Trump’s way of thinking is not much better. Trump used the announcement of Pence as his running mate as an opportunity to remind America that his pick had caved to “establishment” pressure and endorsed Ted Cruz during the primaries. It was as if Trump were saying that he knows what weak men are like, and enjoys seeing them finally crawl. Gov. Chris Christie has had his early loyalty to Trump rewarded with a handful of humiliation (including a joke about Oreos). Paul Ryan and Reince Priebus have been serially embarrassed in spite of their support. All these leaders have been miniaturized by their contact with Trump. Which seems to be part of the purpose. Trump not only wants his former opponents to renounce past skepticism, but also to pay for it.
“It’s almost – in some ways, like, I’m running against two parties,” Trump explained last month. In Cleveland, one senior Republican official told me, “Trump is still settling scores.” His goal is not party unity, unless it is the unity of unconditional surrender. On some issues, like global trade, this has involved the surrender of principle, with hardly a yelp of protest.
Meanwhile, Republicans are being asked to pretend that everything is normal, even as their leaders are being belittled and some defining Republican convictions abandoned. The balloons will drop as usual – but on a different and diminished party.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.