“Questioning free trade among conservative economists is akin to doubting Jesus’s divinity at an Evangelical gathering,” writes Henry Olsen over at National Review. He’s mostly right, which explains why when Donald Trump came on the political scene in 2015 and said China, Mexico, and even Canada were taking advantage of the United States, free traders with Islamist-like zeal declared Trump a zindiq and issued a fatwa on his candidacy.
But Olsen seems to forget this part of Trump’s rise. Olsen basically admits as much when he writes, “The movement is now divided on many topics, but few gain such robust and near-uniform approval among conservative intellectuals as free trade.” Trump might not be considered a conservative intellectual, but his admittedly crude views on trade are thoughtfully backed by a growing number of thinkers (Robert Lighthizer and Oren Cass) and institutions (Coalition for a Prosperous America and the Center for Renewing America).
Olsen remembers other aspects of this history quite well, however. “Conservatives have been ardent free traders for decades,” Olsen writes, but Trump’s trade policies, including his floated 10 percent general tariff that acted as the impetus for Olson’s piece, “hearkens back to the pre–New Deal Republican consensus that touted a protective tariff as the cure for all economic ills. That Republicanism was robustly nationalist in its focus, and its candidates openly campaigned on the idea that the tariff lifted wages for the average working man.”
While Olsen argues, “returning to that old consensus… would be a bad idea,” he’s able to see the bigger picture. America is a country, not a market— “The United States is a free-ish market, but first and foremost it is a democratic republic.” The economy is in service of the nation, not the other way around—” if free trade creates concentrated social disruption, the aggrieved will turn to the ballot box for redress. And if free trade empowers the rise of powerful adversaries, it could be the cause of its own demise.”
“That’s where Trump’s tariff idea has value,” Olsen says. “It entails the belief that tariffs, and by extension other trade barriers or subsidies, are just another tool conservatives need to think about when deciding how to achieve the national interest.”
I’ll give Olsen points for taking Trump “seriously, not literally,” as an Atlantic headline once read. He’s better off learning the lessons of 2016 in 2023—many intransigent free traders will never learn.
“Trump’s protection may be ill-advised, but his nationalist instinct is sound,” Olsen concludes. “Conservatives should outgrow their devotion to the free-trade faith and craft a new, pro-American trade policy.”
Indeed. But crafting a “new, pro-American trade policy,” takes more than just an understanding of the bigger picture. It takes the requisite policy prescriptions, many of which have been put forward by Trump, to make such an economy come about. These are the terms. After all, no trade is free.