In 2014, I published a book called America in Retreat, with the subtitle, “The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder.” Though an entire chapter is devoted to a critique of Tea Party foreign policy, it was mainly a lament about what I saw as President Barack Obama’s imprudent retreat from America’s global responsibilities and the risk of returning to the disastrous foreign policy mindset of the 1930s.
Silly me. I wrote the book one administration too soon.
That’s the conclusion to draw from Donald Trump’s long-promised and now bluntly delivered imposition of steel and aluminum tariffs on Mexico, Canada and the European Union. And that was just after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin decided to put tariffs on China “on hold” to allow negotiations to continue.
What was it that Sarah Palin once said about Obama’s foreign policy—that he was “coddling enemies and alienating allies”? Well, move over, Barack.
Those tariffs on China might still be on—with this administration, inconstancy and idiocy seem to contend like wrestlers in a WWE match—but that would only compound the damage. Protectionism anywhere is invariably bad for local consumers and the global economy, but American protectionism is infinitely worse. It’s a betrayal of the liberal-international order we founded nearly eight decades ago; an invitation to anti-Americanism; a rebuff to our friends, and sometimes (Boston Tea Party, anyone?) a prelude to war.
Never mind restoring a bust of Winston Churchill to the Oval Office. The spirit that really hovers over this White House is Herbert Hoover’s.
But that’s unfair to Hoover, whose soul can now rest easy that he is no longer the worst Republican president ever. In the grip of the Great Depression, the 31st president was under intense political pressure to sign the Tariff Act of 1930, better known as Smoot-Hawley after its Republican authors in Congress.
Hoover was a somewhat reluctant protectionist. And while 1,028 economists signed a petition imploring the president not to sign, he could not then know that Smoot-Hawley would become a byword for economic folly. Between 1930 and 1933, the value of global trade declined from $4.9 billion to $1.8 billion.
Trump has no such excuses. The economy is humming. The overwhelming majority of Americans want more trade deals, not fewer, and are leery of a trade war. Congressional Republicans are broadly pro-trade and aren’t trying to push the administration into a political corner. And the opposition to tariffs among professional economists is about as universal now as it was then.
The same might be said for many U.S. executives who know something about how the tariffs will work. On Friday I spoke with Gary Stein, CEO of Houston-based Triple-S Steel, which sells about 1 million tons of steel products a year, mostly for construction and heavy manufacturing. He calls the tariffs “just juvenile.”
“These guys in Washington don’t understand how real supply lines work,” he says. “You can’t crack the economy on the end of a whip like that when you are dealing with real jobs and real people and real products coming across borders. There’s a lot of special stuff that comes from only one mill, and now suddenly you can’t get it or it’s going to cost you 25 percent more.”
So what motivates the president to pick these fights? Rust-belt politics surely plays a role. But it’s also the same ideological obsession he has held since at least the 1980s—as dated and ugly as his mullet—not to mention his sneering indifference to what was once called “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”
When the Wall Street Journal editorial board (of which I was then a member) asked Trump in 2015 whether he worried that his immigration and trade policies could have disastrous political effects in Mexico, he answered: “I don’t care about Mexico honestly, I really don’t care about Mexico.” Next month, Mexicans, who do care, will likely elect their most anti-American president in nearly 50 years.
Conservative apologists for Trump have long told us not to worry about his most extreme positions, because his sober-minded advisers would surely bring him to reason. Sure. Last week one of those supposedly sober minds, Vice President Mike Pence, torpedoed relations with Canada by abruptly demanding a five-year sunset clause for a renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement.
Did most Americans even notice? Perhaps they won’t while the expansion continues to run its course, but they will feel it when it stops. The administration is blowing up the foundations of global economic order with the same mindless glee as a child popping bubble wrap. Canada now intends to retaliate with $12.8 billion worth of its own tariffs. Mexico and the European Union are set to announce retaliatory levies of their own. And these are our friends.
The darker echoes of the 1930s are sounding louder. The shadow of Hoover grows longer. We know how this movie ends. If Trump’s economic adviser Larry Kudlow had a gram of self-respect he’d resign.
Bret Stephens is a New York Times columnist.