For someone whose policy ideas coincide mostly with whatever he’s seen on Fox News that day, Donald Trump has been remarkably consistent on the issue of trade, endorsing a protectionist viewpoint since the 1980s. His rejection of President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership and call to rewrite “disastrous” trade deals arguably helped swing the election in key Midwest states.
In pushing this agenda, Trump leaned against a durable consensus in the center of both parties for expanded trade and globalization. And the thing about a consensus is that it’s usually presented as self-evidently correct, with minimal proof. Now that Trump is poised to shatter that consensus, we should look critically not only at what he wants to do, but at the counter-arguments from those consensus-holders.
Trump’s policy decisions should roll out quickly. He named Robert Lighthizer as nominee for US trade representative on Tuesday, an establishment choice (a former deputy trade rep under Reagan) but one with views on trade that mirror Trump’s. In 2008 Lighthizer penned an op-ed in The New York Times attempting to position conservatives as the protectionist party (which is true if you’re talking about the 1930s, but not so much in between then and today). Though the trade rep’s position is likely to be weakened in the Trump administration, Lighthizer will work well with Peter Navarro, Trump’s trade czar, who has endorsed similarly aggressive policies against China and other mercantilist nations that have been locations for outsourcing of American manufacturing. (Commerce secretary nominee Wilbur Ross will also have an outsized role in trade policy.)
What does that mean in practice? Trump has vowed to pull out of the TPP on day one, preferring bilateral deals with individual nations. He has promised to file grievances at the World Trade Organization against illegal practices like the dumping of cheap foreign-made steel. And his administration has flirted with a 5 or 10 percent tariff on all imports, as a means to level the playing field for domestically produced products.