Three pro-poor alternatives to Trump’s dangerous tariffs
Trump signs a presidential proclamation on steel tariffs. Credit: Michael Reynolds/ PA   

If everything happens for a reason, I’m hoping that the election of Donald Trump’s was the pill that civilisation had to swallow to ensure that such a foul-mouthed, race-baiting, truth-allergic, womanising character is never elected to high office again – and that he is emphatically and tutorially ousted from office in three years’ time. Though this is a hope rather than a prediction. I’m a chastened and humbled forecaster.

I set out that hope as someone who nonetheless sees much good from his tenure1 and was proud, last week, to publish the atheist Justin Webb’s sympathetic explanation for Bible-believing America’s overwhelming support for Trump. It was a piece of journalism rooted in old-style reporting and immersion in US culture (from when Justin was the BBC’s North America Editor – and to a significant degree since). It was part of the insightful and not-yet-complete ‘Believers in Trump’ series put together by Katie Harrison.

Justin’s piece sought to dig down into why Trump’s core supporters voted as they did – rather than lazily and uncomprehendingly condemning and misrepresenting them. Nonetheless, while we should seek to understand and even sympathise, I’ve long believed that it’s the character question which made the unrepentant Trump such an inappropriate head of the American state. The US President is, after all, much more than a head of government (Obama was a superb HoS, not such a good HoG). The Clinton campaign commercial – below – encapsulated the argument I attempted in Standpoint magazine nearly two years ago.

It shouldn’t just be Trump who gets his just rewards. His apologists in the Republican party and broader conservative movement should, too. Last night in a special (by-)election in Pennsylvania we saw a sign of the big-league shellacking that could be heading his way and, in this November’s mid-terms, the way of the Never-er-um-oh-go-on-then-Trumpified-GOP.

It was only ten days ago that the Wall Street Journal declared the President’s steel tariffs were a winner – in that same state. Hmmm. The Journal has had to report this morning that the Congressional district which voted yesterday and which Mr Trump carried by 20% a year ago – and, given its economic make-up, should have been receptive to his protectionism for the steel industry – may well have been lost to the Democrats.

This must be perplexing for the journalistas who argued that last year’s Republican tax cut package (a bonanza for GOP donors – coincidentally, the newspaper’s readers and advertisers) would reap such dividends on Main Street. Choosing positions that maintain a circulation of two million turns out be easier than finding the components of an electoral pitch that can mobilise tens of millions of people.

But can Trump be defeated by a reformed Democratic Party? Or will the party’s strategists return to their demographic tables – showing rising cohorts of left-leaning, non-white, university-educated, unmarried, secular, and largely urban populations – and conclude there really is no need to reach out to the “deplorables”. Reasoning that the three million lead that Hillary Clinton enjoyed in the popular vote will be automatically five or six or seven million tall in 2020 and will overwhelm any uneven voting patterns in the electoral college. Yes, that might be a recipe for electoral victory (although Dems shouldn’t underestimate new tech’s impact on their own (more clean finger-nailed) voters’ welfare) but it’s not patriotic. It’s not auspicious for good, one nation government.

Whatever one may think of Mr Trump’s steel tariffs (and I love how our English-speaking friends pronounce “aluminium”), it’s the first time many feel someone is trying to do something. The Left’s loss of the working-class vote is no accident. Former industrial era workforces know the people running today’s parties of ‘labour’ are more comfortable discussing transgender rights and university tuition than the price of energy or the level of immigration.

So what does a non-world-and-progress-go-away but pro-worker agenda look like? Three alternatives stand out to me.

(1) Don’t subsidise the better-off

One approach was set out by UnHerd’s own Henry Olsen in an OpEd for the Wall Street Journal this week (perhaps I’ve been too harsh on it?). In it, Henry, the Editor of our Flyover Country work (please see its spring-cleaned homepage), set out a range of measures on vocational training, a stronger safety-net and devolution of policy-making so solutions better fit with an area’s industrial heritage.

At the end of last year David Brooks listed other measures being proposed by reformist Republicans to address very real blue-collar anxieties. None of these ideas (which included faster forgiveness of bad credit and even of criminal histories) is an intellectual new-born, but they could be brought alive by canny political strategists.

In the UK, for example, a pledge by the Tories to oppose (most of) Labour’s tuition fees policy (and its subsidy of better-off university graduates2) and instead pour the money saved into the kind of ideas identified by Brooks and Olsen would clearly communicate which party is on the side of those most hurt by disruptive technologies and emerging economies.

(2) It’s not Canada. It’s not Australia. Or other “allies”. The problem is China and it should face Trump’s wrath

The threat of those emerging economies and of one, in particular, is on Senator Marco Rubio’s mind. The Florida Republican refuses to defend Mr Trump’s blunt weapon that will hurt many other economies (once known by more internationalist, Pax Americana presidents as “allies”) when the villain is China.

Writing in the New York Times Senator Rubio spotlights Beijing’s currency manipulation, its use of industrial espionage in joint ventures with US companies and an unpunished tolerance by Beijing of intellectual property theft. The seasoned rulers of China are playing a long game and are willing to pay short-term prices (which many free trade absolutists refuse to tolerate or even recognise) if their dumping of excess production on world steel markets clears the way for strategic dominance and the long-term gains it would produce. Suggesting that 2.4 million US jobs have been lost to the communist state since China’s 1999 entry to the global trading system, Rubio calls for punitive duties on Chinese enterprises that behave uncompetitively or illegally.

Do we need to rush to the ‘utopia’ envisaged by Davos man? Slightly less haste would not necessarily alter the destination but would give public and private welfare providers more time to help victims of change to successfully manage what Nigel Cameron has described as the trickiest part of changing from one economic order to another – the transition phase. Credit: Pixabay

(3) Why the rush?

And idea three is more philosophical than wonkish. Give up ‘free trade absolutism’ and most other kinds of absolutism. As much was recommended by Professor Niall Ferguson when he spoke to UnHerd last year. Yes, we can nearly all agree that – ultimately – free trade is better for all of us than protectionism. Almost always. In the long-term. That immigration – especially when controlled and targeted – can be of great economic, social and cultural benefit. Usually. We can also agree that technologies can’t be disinvented and most deserve to breathe. Innovation has brought huge gains – notably to women who, liberated from once back-breaking tasks by household appliances – are finally closing in on some degree of equality.

But let’s not rush. Let’s not be intellectually purist, assured that all will work well when the economic and social histories are written and that, in the meantime, we can afford to be careless, even mindless, about the transitional costs for those at the economic sharp ends. Governments are not as nimble as the innovators of Silicon Valley or the exporters of Mumbai. Giving extra time to evolve to arrangements that revolve clinically in economic textbooks may frustrate the Zuckerbergs or Davoskind but it’ll mean more support is in place – and trialled and tested by public servants – to ease the transition.

Tony Blair’s refusal to have transitional controls on immigration to Britain from the much poorer countries of central and eastern Europe was the best and ultimately self-defeating example of the absolutism of the brave new worlders. Let’s stop being labs for this kind of borderless utopianism.

FOOTNOTES
  1.  I should probably explain more but, just for the moment, I’ll highlight the advantage of America’s Supreme Court remaining more or less evenly-divided rather than becoming a 6-3 liberal court – effectively run by judicial activists who are too ready to over-rule democratic and minority views.
  2.  Do read James Kirkup’s piece for UnHerd from last September for chapter and verse: “What is certain is that there’s a gap in the political market for someone to offer the poorest workers a better deal and better representation. Could the Conservative Party find a way to offer those workers something Labour and the trade unions don’t seem able or willing to give? That is, at the very least, something that Tories pondering the future should think about. Mr Corbyn appears to think he doesn’t need to do or say much for benefits claimants and the working poor, because his followers will take him on trust and his opponents will never dare to challenge him on that battlefield.”