Like many other aspects of Donald Trump’s presidency, the administration’s recent actions on trade have created an awkward situation for elected Republicans. Although the president’s embrace of economic nationalism has proven popular among the Republican base and swing voters in the Midwest, who seem to enjoy Trump’s confrontational, off-the-cuff style of economic policy making, it also conflicts sharply with the Republican Party’s well-established support for free trade. That conflict has been the source of a number of personnel disputes within the White House and has compromised the ability of GOP lawmakers to defend the president’s actions.
It’s too early to know how much influence Trump’s populist trade policy will have on the Republican Party in the long run, but some Republicans have already begun to experiment with new, more belligerent rhetoric that’s less consistent with the party’s broader, official embrace of laissez-faire economic policy.
For example, last Tuesday, the Republican National Committee’s twitter account (@GOP) shared an opinion piece lamenting inbound foreign investment from China for turning the United States into a “resource colony” for “our Chinese economic overlords.” The tweet pulled out a quote praising Trump’s repudiation of “naive U.S. free trade.”
This kind of rhetoric fits well with Trump’s view of trade as a zero-sum game where all countries try to take advantage of each other and trade balances tell us who’s winning. It is not, however, compatible with the public positions of most Republican elected officials or the pre-Trump Republican Party platform, which had to be substantially edited in 2016 to conform to Trump’s campaign pledges.
To be fair, the staffers operating the RNC’s twitter account needed to find praise of Trump’s actions and did not have a lot of other sources available. While there are plenty of Wall Street Journal editorials, policy analyses from conservative think tanks, and op-eds by former prominent Republican officials discussing Trump’s recent trade actions, all of them are highly critical. The party’s voters may be happy with Trump’s mercantilist maneuvers, but its operatives and thinkers still hew to the principle of free trade.
So do members of the Republican leadership in Congress. After Trump announced steel and aluminum tariffs, the action was criticized by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and House Ways and Means Committee Chair Kevin Brady.
The response from leadership makes sense considering that their job is largely to represent the Republican coalition as a whole. That coalition includes business owners, investors, and professionals who support Republicans in order to ensure fiscal restraint, small government, and free markets. Trump constantly alienates those groups by promoting protectionism and disrupting markets with his chaotic style of governing.
But Ryan, Hatch, and many other Republican leaders are quitting Congress this year, and the party’s leadership—and majority status—may look different after the 2018 election. Listening to the new Republican leaders, whoever they may be, ought to give us a good sense of whether Trump’s populist mercantilism has taken a firmer hold of the party.
And there’s plenty of reason to believe it will. Despite all the verbal condemnation, very few Republican lawmakers have been willing to support legislation that would actually push back against Trump’s trade policy. And one of the most vocal of those is Jeff Flake who has chosen not to run for reelection this year. Flake isn’t the only GOP legislator to leave office in response to Trump, and many of those who aren’t leaving have chosen to adapt.
Meanwhile, Trump has primed Republican voters to expect candidates who espouse belligerent unilateralism in trade policy and are willing to indulge popular protectionist intuitions. Republican politicians with presidential ambitions have taken notice of this new reality. Both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who used to believe in free trade, have been supportive of Trump’s tariffs and mimicked his confrontational rhetoric, especially when talking about China.
The party’s awkward flirtation with populist mercantilism seems fundamentally different and more serious than the election-motivated China bashing or selective protectionism that Republicans have employed in the past. Perhaps it is, nevertheless, just a phase that will fade away after Trump is gone. Or, it may herald the beginning of a new era in American politics in which GOP policy positions are shaped almost exclusively by workers’ anxiety about economic growth.
Either way, the next few years are going to be really weird for Republicans.