The Trump media surrogates have a quandary. They’re not sure whether to compare their man Donald Trump to Ronald Reagan, distinguish him from Reagan, or dismiss Reagan. It depends on the day and the subject. So they spin, and spin, and spin.
One area in which Trump can be nailed down is his overall view of trade. As I explained at Conservative Review, when it comes to Trump’s own financial dealings, he is an unrepentant globalist, from which he has made a fortune. But these days, as he runs for president, the billionaire is a radical protectionist who has repeatedly declared his intention to impose massive tariffs aimed at the economies of other countries, such as Japan and Mexico, and a forty-five percent tariff on products from China. Such broad tariffs would most certainly result in retaliation by the targeted countries. This is a sure job-killer that would also drive up costs of everyday products to low- and middle-class Americans. The net result: economic misery, not just for those hard-working, tax-paying Americans who work in industries that rely on international commerce and trade, but mostly everyone.
This is not Reaganism but Herbert Hooverism. And besides the economic impact, this would lead to empowering further centralized government — politicians, courts, and bureaucrats — and weakening further the private sector and individual liberty. This is precisely what occurred during the Great Depression. The federal government always gets more powerful under these conditions, which is among the reasons constitutional conservatives resist it.
Trump has also threatened Ford Motor Company, should it move forward with building a plant in Mexico. He has warned Apple Inc. against continuing to manufacture iPhones in China. Should he become president, Trump does not have the constitutional authority to manage and control private companies as if they are his own. But the Hugo Chavez-like rhetoric alone should concern freedom-loving Americans.
None of this seems to matter to professional Trump media surrogates, including Julia Hahn at Breitbart. Not only does she ignore these stunning Trump proclamations, she insists, for now anyway, that there really is no light between what Trump is saying and proposing and what Reagan said and did. Her premise is so thoroughly preposterous and her “arguments” so thin, I thought it worth a brief examination. Indeed, the opposite is true. Trump’s position on trade is more akin to socialist Bernie Sanders. As Trump explained to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Sunday, “I’m going to get Bernie [Sanders] people to vote, because they like me on trade.”
First, let’s look at the bogeyman, the trilateral agreement with the United States, Canada, and Mexico known as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Trump has said, “We will either renegotiate it or we will break it.” He has called it “a disaster.” Not only was Reagan a powerful advocate for such a trade arrangement, he is credited with giving it birth when he announced his candidacy for president in 1979. Reagan called for a “North American accord.” Indeed, in 1984, as a result of Reagan’s efforts, Congress passed the Trade and Tariff Act, giving the president “fast-track” authority to negotiate free trade agreements. And in 1988, the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, the predecessor to NAFTA, was signed. (It has since been overtaken by NAFTA, which includes Mexico.)
Reagan was so passionate about free trade generally, and NAFTA in particular, on September 13, 1993, he penned an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, titled “Tear Down The Trade Wall,” urging the passage of NAFTA. Below is an excerpt, but I would encourage you to read it in full here. I raise this op-ed because of the extensive propaganda campaign underway to justify Trump’s protectionism by comparing him to Reagan:
For decades America has led freedom-seeking people around the world in their struggles to destroy and dismantle the oppressive barriers that divide countries and restrict liberty. Today, many of those battles have been fought and won — the barricades that once stood between countries no longer exist and their citizens are able to live together in freedom and prosperity. With this in mind, we, as Americans — as North Americans — are faced with a new challenge. The Cold War is over, and now we must break down the tariff walls that restrict the free flow of trade on our continent. The North American Free Trade Agreement can bring us that victory.
The reason for a free trade agreement is simple: Throughout history, whenever and wherever trade barriers have been lowered, the participating economies have flourished. Through Nafta, we will most certainly see a boost to the economic vitality of the U.S., Canada and Mexico. It will help mature and expand the North American economy, keeping us globally competitive.
Presidents of both political parties have embraced the North American Free Trade Agreement in order to forge a powerful bloc to compete in today’s global economy. Its history goes back even further. When I announced my candidacy for president in 1979, I believed in the potential for the world’s largest free trade zone and called for the creation of such a North American Accord.
We took a major step forward in 1988, when we were able to forge a historic trade agreement between the U.S. and Canada. This agreement cut tariffs and eliminated other trade barriers and, as a result, the world’s longest undefended border got a lot busier. Back then objections were raised, but the critics were proven wrong and our trade grew to a world record $175 billion — and our two-way investment also reached record levels.
Moreover, on August 6, 1983, in a radio address to the nation, Reagan spoke about the benefits of trade and the dangers of protectionism. He said, in part:
I’d like to talk to you today about trade — a powerful force for progress and peace, as you well know. The winds and waters of commerce carry opportunities that help nations grow and bring citizens of the world closer together. Put simply, increased trade spells more jobs, higher earnings, better products, less inflation, and cooperation over confrontation. The freer the flow of world trade, the stronger the tides for economic progress and peace among nations.
I’ve seen in my lifetime what happens when leaders forget these timeless principles. They seek to protect industries and jobs, but they end up doing the opposite. One economic lesson of the 1930’s is protectionism increases international tensions. We bought less from our trading partners, but then they bought less from us. Economic growth dried up. World trade contracted by over 60 percent, and we had the Great Depression. Young Americans soon followed the American flag into World War II.
No one wants to relive that nightmare, and we don’t have to. The 1980’s can be a time when our economies grow together, and more jobs will be created for all. This was the spirit of the Williamsburg summit in May. The leaders of the industrialized countries pledged to continue working for a more open trading system. But sometimes that’s easier said than done.
In 1986, under the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), Reagan started the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations. It culminated in lowering tariffs throughout the world and eventually the World Trade Organization. Over one hundred countries were signatories.
The Reagan record of promoting trade, through words and actions, abounds. Yet, not a single word of any of this was relayed to Hahn’s readers in her Breitbart piece comparing Trump to Reagan. In fact, she doesn’t quote Trump’s famous words either, when he told The New York Times, in part, “I would tax China on products coming in. I would do a tariff, yes — and they do it to us.” He said he’s “a free trader,” but that “it’s got to be reasonably fair.” “I would do a tax. And the tax, let me tell you what the tax should be … the tax should be 45 percent.” Forty-five percent on what? Not a single product or some products. But on all products coming from China and other unspecified tariffs aimed at Japan and Mexico.
Instead, Hahn cherry picks the occasions when Reagan did impose tariffs, which were rare and specific. For example, Hahn writes:
Reagan did not hesitate to impose duties, tariffs, and other trade fairness measures to enforce trade rules — the same measures which they now criticize Trump for supporting. Indeed, Reagan was harshly rebuked by so-called ‘free traders’ for taking ‘protectionist’ actions such as a 45% tariff on Japanese motorcycles to save the Harley-Davidson Motor Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Reagan’s action seems similar to Trump’s call for a 45% tariff on Chinese imports.
Obviously, I’m familiar with these actions. I’ve even mentioned on my radio program that Reagan imposed certain tariffs. In fact, I’ve gone further. I have pointed out several times that the federal government imposes over 12,000 tariffs on products and the Federal Reserve manipulates our currency as well through a variety of techniques, most especially quantitative easing. I don’t believe much of this has been beneficial to our nation’s economy or hard-working low- and middle-income Americans. For all the attacks on free trade by the protectionists and Big Labor, the problem is the lack of it. More trade and commerce, along with cuts in regulations and individual and corporate income taxes, would contribute mightily to the nation’s economic expansion and job creation.
But a trade war is triggered when one country directs broad-based tariffs at another country, resulting in retaliation. And that’s what Trump is promoting. Again, as Reagan put it, referring to the 1930s,”No one wants to relive that nightmare, and we don’t have to.” Even when Reagan lifted the special tariff imposed on Japanese motorcycles, on May 16, 1987 he addressed the nation and emphasized the importance of trade and commerce, condemning protectionist legislation and warning of its consequences.
In 1985, and at other times, Reagan warned that he would veto protectionist legislation bouncing around Congress. He stated, “[S]o-called protectionism is almost always self-destructive, doing more harm than good even to those it’s supposed to be helping. … Protectionism almost always ends up making the protected industry weaker and less able to compete against foreign imports. … From now on, if the ghost of Smoot-Hawley rears its ugly head in Congress, if Congress creates a depression-making bill, I’ll fight it.” Indeed, Reagan was true to his word. In 1985, he vetoed legislation imposing tariffs on textiles, shoes, and copper.
In 1986, when the Democrat House passed another protectionist bill, the New York Daily News reported:
Employing some of his strongest language to date against the House-passed trade bill, President Reagan Thursday called the measure ‘kamikaze legislation’ and warned that it could send the economy ‘into the steepest nosedive since the Great Depression.’ Speaking to the National Association of Manufacturers, Reagan renewed his threat to veto the bill if it emerges from Congress in the same form that passed the House last week on a vote of 295-115. The measure would impose import restraints on countries such as Japan that maintain large trade surpluses with the United States.
It was killed in the Senate.
In 1987, as Congress was readying more protectionist legislation, Reagan warned against it. In 1988, as promised, Reagan vetoed another textile protectionist bill over Democrat Party objections.
Reagan said, in part, “It would impose needless costs on American consumers, threaten jobs in our export industries, jeopardize our overseas farm sales and undermine our efforts to obtain a more open trading system for U.S. exports. This bill represents protectionism at its worst.”
Now, let’s return to the premise of Hahn’s Breitbart piece. She launched her essay with this:
The members of the #NeverTrump movement cite, in part, Donald Trump’s position on trade as a reason why they cannot support their party’s presumptive nominee, chosen by Republican voters. They argue that Trump’s position on trade represents a betrayal of the Ronald Reagan legacy that defines virtually all thinking and rhetoric among the professional conservative class in Washington, D.C. However, there is one significant problem with this line of attack: namely, Reagan’s record on trade far more closely resembles Trump’s position than it resembles the view of those in the #NeverTrump movement. In fact, by their own definition, Reagan would have been a radical “protectionist”—meaning professional conservatives who are #NeverTrump would also have been for #NeverReagan.
The absurdity of Hahn’s piece is now clear, as is her rhetoric. Reagan’s approach to trade and commerce has very little in common with Trump’s positions. It is another weak effort to tie Trump to Reagan, the latter being an enormously popular and successful president. Her leader is no Reagan. He’s actually more Sanders, as he reaches out to the latter’s supporters. Perhaps Hahn will turn her attention to that? Don’t count on it.
Finally, some clean up. Hahn cites a CATO Institute piece condemning the Reagan trade record. Well, here’s a link to a CATO Institute piece praising it. So what? Then Hahn takes offense at my interview of Marco Rubio, throwing some red-meat out there for obfuscation purposes. What does that have to do with anything? Nothing. Chalk that up to immaturity. And among all the real experts and scholars she can cite for authority about the Great Depression, who’ve written at great length about the subject, she chooses Pat Buchanan as her source. At least she didn’t use Pat to defend Trump’s position on Israel, whatever it is.
As Trump apparently feels the Bern, moving left on the minimum wage, taxes, and trade, I would encourage liberty-loving Americans to insist that he demonstrate to us his worthiness to be president. He can count on his media surrogates no matter what, that’s quite obvious. But he has to persuade millions of others. Meanwhile, we will keep the pressure on him to support more freedom and less government.
Mark R. Levin is the host of LevinTV on CRTV.