Donald Trump journeyed to the suburbs of Pittsburgh to deliver his most detailed speech yet about trade policies, and the symbolism was obvious. A key element of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” mantra is the notion that the loss of manufacturing jobs such as steelwork is the direct result of bad trade deals. Trump promises this will all end once he’s elected president and begins cracking down on “cheater” countries. To those who point out that what he is planning is not so much a return to the 1940s and 50s but nothing less than a series of trade wars with China, Mexico, and any other country he doesn’t like, Trump has no qualms. He says we are already in a trade war and that we are “losing badly.”
But if voters think they are losing now, just wait to see what the results of Trump’s trade wars will be for American families. Trump’s protectionist creed will produce an epic recession with massive job losses, an end to even the anemic growth the U.S. has experienced under President Obama, and a global recession. As this study produced by Moody Analytics published in the Washington Post last week points out, the trade barriers Trump is planning on erecting will hit China and other competitors very hard. But they will hit Americans just as hard. The study claims that as many as four million workers will lose their jobs in a Trump tariff-induced recession. Three million new jobs won’t be created because growth will flatline.
It’s all well and good to complain about China’s dirty tricks. But the world that Trump wishes to recreate can’t be summoned back into existence by tariffs. The decline in manufacturing jobs has as much to do with automation, which reduced the need for workers by hundreds or thousands per site, as it does with globalization. And the products produced by that cheap labor also gives working and middle-class Americans far more buying power, as anyone who shops in a Walmart can attest. That the decline in manufacturing jobs has been matched and exceeded by the growth in the service industry and health care employment goes unmentioned by those who believe that all we really need are more steelworkers.
A mid-20th Century vision of a nation where U.S. factory workers pulled down wages that could support middle-class families while a Pax Americana reigns abroad is enticing, especially to those who feel they’ve lost out in an economy that rewarded different skills. But what Trump is selling white working-class Americans isn’t so much a coherent economic plan as it is nostalgia and chauvinism that provide no answers to our problems.
That global trade has made America wealthier isn’t in much doubt which is why, as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce pointed out, if we are really interested in creating more jobs and the economic growth that will lift all boats, we should be tearing down economic walls between nations, not erecting more of them.
Hillary Clinton’s slide to the left to compete with Bernie Sanders’s socialist approach to the economy (not dissimilar to Trump’s) doesn’t put her in a strong position to criticize. But that fact should remind Republicans as they gather for their convention next month that, for all of his politically incorrect bullying and flirtations with racist rhetoric, Trump is essentially running to the left of Clinton. Trump is essentially trashing conservative principles about free markets and replacing them economic snake oil, supported, as was his speech, by research from a left-wing think tank.
Those GOP delegates should be thinking now about whether they really want to have their party hijacked by a toxic blend of left-wing economics and far-right blood and soil nationalism that would tank the economy and tarnish the GOP brand for a generation. They have less than three weeks to decide before it will be too late to act.