Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Nationalist? Populist? Tariffs Are Neither; They Help the Well-Off Most

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Nationalist? Populist? Tariffs Are Neither; They Help the Well-Off Most

Article excerpt

One of the main reasons Donald Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016 was his commitment to what he claimed was a populist and nationalist agenda. He was going to put the people of American first, he promised, ahead of the special interests and other countries. These emphases, in addition to his brash television persona, enabled him to stand above the crowded GOP field and snag the nomination from candidates like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

A hallmark of Mr. Trump's populist-nationalism was his commitment to taxes on imported goods, or tariffs, intended to protect vulnerable American industries. And last week he made good on his campaign pledge by proposing new levies on imported steel and aluminum.

Yet, contrary to Mr. Trump's rhetoric, which on this issue has been remarkably consistent over the course of his public career, tariffs are neither very nationalistic nor populist.

A hallmark of a nationalist political program is, obviously, an effort to benefit the nation at large, rather than currying favor with a select few. This was one of Mr. Trump's main grievances during the primaries - that politics played in the "swamp" was a "rigged game" meant to help the wealthy few. Yet this is exactly what protective tariffs such as these do: They identify certain industries for special benefits, rather than others. How is that fair?

Moreover, industries are inevitably related to one another through the economic marketplace. So, favoring one industry can harm another. For instance, Mr. Trump's tariffs might help the steel and aluminum industries, but they will increase prices for car manufacturers, who will try to cut costs of their own or ultimately raise prices on the American consumer.

In other words, tariffs such as these help the few at the expense of the many. How is that nationalistic?

Protective tariffs are not very populist, either. Insofar as populism is really just nostalgia for days long gone, tariffs can certainly seem populist - as they ostensibly would help rebuild America's manufacturing base, which over the past 50 years has been degraded due to technological innovations and foreign competition. …

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