Nunes: Trump is wrong on trade

Caleb Nunes, Op-Ed Contributor


In a social media video in February, former President Donald Trump announced what may be his most reckless economic plan yet. In his disdain for the globalist elite, he has erroneously directed blame toward consumers seeking the finest goods for the cheapest prices, regardless of where they were manufactured. 

In this social media post, Trump appropriately blames the Biden administration for burdening domestic production with environmental and workplace regulations. However, this speech clearly squanders an opportunity. Rather than elaborate on the labyrinthine tax code and extraconstitutional agencies that create these domestic production regulations, Trump revealed a plan to levy a “universal baseline tariff” on most foreign-made goods for American consumers and businesses. He also proposed a four-year scheme to end all Chinese imports of “essential goods” and unspecified trade agreements with other nations that he deems unfair. 

This trade plan is Trump’s most radical one yet and a brilliant political move, given the shifts in public opinion against foreign trade. With his formidable sway over the Republican base, his economic proposal will be well received by the party’s supporters. Any candidate who does not align with his protectionist inclinations will be playing defense. However, some conservative individuals and forums still understand the value of free trade and its bearing on economic liberty. They must vigorously oppose Trump’s ideas and present a countervision of rising consumer welfare and job creation through adherence to free trade. 

During his presidency, Trump surrounded himself with voices who have historically advocated for free trade. With the exception of advisers like Stephen Miller and Peter Navarro, Trump kept close contact with free trade proponents like Arthur Laffer, to whom he awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom; Stephen Moore, whom he almost nominated to the Federal Reserve; and Larry Kudlow, whom he appointed director of the National Economic Council. While at the NEC, Kudlow asserted that Trump only used tariffs as a temporary measure to push other nations to lower their trade barriers. However, Trump’s new proposal makes clear that he doesn’t view tariffs as a temporary tool. 

The Index of Economic Freedom, published annually by the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, reports that nations with increased trade freedom have higher food security, higher average incomes, more political stability and healthier, less-polluted environments. Despite that, Heritage’s index indicates an almost seven-point drop in U.S. trade freedom since Trump first implemented tariffs in 2018. Unfortunately, this plummet occurred despite Trump using Heritage to staff much of his administration. Instead of raising tariffs and starting a trade war with China, Trump would have been better off creating trade agreements that bilaterally reduce trade barriers. 

Ultimately, his new protectionist nonsense means Trump acknowledges the futility of his administration in achieving its 2016 anti-free trade campaign promises. He boasts of having dismantled the North American Free Trade Agreement when he instead replaced it with the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement — which only marginally restricts trade overall. Trump also promised to reduce the trade deficit, but it actually grew from $480 billion to almost $700 billion under his presidency. In the same speech he announced the plan in, Trump said President Joe Biden’s trade policies have led to job losses, but Biden hasn’t actually altered many of Trump’s trade restrictions. 

Trump is misdiagnosing the ailments of Biden’s economy, proposing an economically deleterious solution as a result. The economy is showing anemic growth due to excessive spending and regulation. If Trump’s trade policies had truly been effective during his presidency, that success should have continued since they were left largely unchanged. If Trump was serious about repatriating money and jobs, he could look back at his well-informed slashing of the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21% and build on it by further slashing the rate to 15% or 0%. Just by reducing it from 35% to 21%, the U.S. repatriated $1 trillion from 2017 through 2019. 

From building the border wall to reducing the trade deficit, Trump failed to accomplish some of the goals that distinguished him from the free trade consensus during his presidency. He frequently did the bidding of the Republican establishment, such as passing tax cuts and challenging the Affordable Care Act in his first year in office, albeit rather meagerly. Trump’s new trade plan is yet another attempt to distance himself from the other Republican candidates. Trump will accuse anyone who doesn’t agree with him of supporting elite, globalist interests, and sadly, his followers will mindlessly nod in agreement. No more ground can be lost in the fight for free trade. It is time conservative leadership presents a coherent defense of free trade, focusing on both its relationship to liberty and material prosperity. 

Caleb Nunes is a McCormick freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.