America’s Political Economy: Trump & The New Protectionist Alignment

Trump’s Presidency is a nightmarish freak show. He takes up so much space that it is hard to focus on anything else. He is personally identified with xenophobia, racism, sexism and economic nationalism, but he is now taken to personify a general movement not just in American but in world politics. It can be hard to remember that until his election “victory” Trump was generally seen as a huge liability for the Republican ticket and as the ideal candidate for Clinton to run against.

But if Trump was and is a liability, does that imply that a Republican running on a similar platform but with a less obnoxious personality and with greater competence might actually have won the election against Clinton fair and square? Could a better Republican candidate, on a similar ticket win big in future?

It is perhaps a silly question. The kind of question that economic historians like to ask to test their causal stories – could there have been an industrial revolution without railways? But such questions always have a point. What I am using it to get at here, is the significance of key aspects of Trump’s platform independent of the man himself.

The racism, the whiteness, the residual appeal to religion, the omnipresent jingoism, the harping on American military strength are all boiler plate Republican agenda items. But in two key respects the Trump campaign was different. It adopted a stone-age approach to immigration (build walls, deport etc etc) as opposed to the technocratic vision of “immigration reform” favored by US business and from 2015 onwards Trump’s campaign shifted a large slice of the Republican party against free trade or trade treaties in favor of aggressive economic nationalism. In both respects Trump broke with key positions of organized American business.

The rupture with the mainstream business lobby should not be underestimated. Though I think he takes the “grassroots insurgency” argument too far, Charlie Post is absolutely on point in highlighting the tensions between base and leadership in the Republican party. By the summer of 2016 Trump was deeply at odds with the Chamber of Commerce, which had been waging a battle inside the Republican party against the Tea Party since 2013. For Breitbart the clash between the Chamber of Commerce and the Republican insurgents exemplified the struggle between “the permanent political class and Main Street”.

Making this break with the business lobby over free trade was worth the risk, because it played particularly well in those crucial industrial Midwestern swing states. But if it worked for Trump, the anti-NAFTA, “fair trade” agenda would surely have played well, or perhaps even better for any other candidate who offered a similar combination of protectionism, nationalism, racism and xenophobia. Hillary Clinton as the inheritor of the NAFTA mantle was a sitting duck. This at least was the working hypothesis of insurgent Republican strategists of the ilk of Breitbart and Pat Caddell. In early 2016 Caddell’s data showed large majorities against TPP in the key demographics that the Trumpites were targeting.

This data also helps to make sense of the extraordinary shift in attitudes within the Republican party towards free trade, once Trump had broken the taboo. Standard visions of globalization had lost their grip on America’s “party of business”.


If this shift is as solidly founded as it appears to be, it has to be factored into any calculation of electoral prospects beyond Trump. Specifically, it has to be factored into any bets on the reassertion of the Democrats’ “natural” demographic majority and the outlook for America’s role as an economic hegemon.

On the electoral side, Stan Greenberg’s thesis of the “New American Majority”, recently invoked by Paul Mason in his “general theory of Trump”, may still be valid, but if the Republicans can hold the declining industrial heartland it may slow the “inevitable” shift down not by years but by decades.

With regard to hegemonic leadership the implications are no less dramatic. The ability of big business interests to uphold “free trade” and “trade treaties” as core elements in the Republican party platform, even if their internationalism was at odds with the xenophobia and nationalism of the party base, was key to enabling NAFTA and other trade treaties to pass through Congress under both Republican and Democratic presidents. It was with Republican votes in Congress that fast track authority was passed. For all their commitment to globalization, the Democrats on the stump were always “soft on trade”. Clinton and Obama “stiffened’ when they were were in government, counting on the Congressional Republicans to give them the majorities they needed to push through trade deals.

The break marked by Trump, as the Laderman and Simms biography reveals, is that he was never part of the globalization consensus. He remained locked in a 1980s mercantilist time warp defined by the first appearance of the Japanese threat. This has dubious relevance to the 21st century, but in a horrible genealogical twist, his “back to the future” candidacy enabled a historic shift in the Republican position.

The other “deep” historical factor that enabled this Republican shift was the fissure between the business elite and the Republican “base” that manifested itself in September 2008 when the Republican House of Representatives voted down the TARP bail out proposed by President Bush and Treasury Secretary Paulson. After that the Republican party was “an accident waiting to happen”. And two “accidents” – mobilizations of the radical right wing of the Republican Party at the expense of functional governance – did: the near shutdown of 2011 and the actual government shutdown of 2013.

What next?

The actual making of trade policy inside the Trump administration is clearly a matter of intense struggle, as this excellent politico piece exposes.

The border tax propopsal may face significant regional opposition as booming, trade-dependent states like Texas which will be badly affected.

But if the protectionism sticks, then it may mark a turn against globalization that goes beyond the person of Trump. If the Republican party does convert to import taxes, undercuts NAFTA etc, it is unclear where the US business elite would find the political vehicle to deliver significant further trade liberalization. For a sample of opinion see

This does not mean, of course, that there is a comprehensive rupture between the Trumpist Republican party and American business. The sectors of US business most intensely interested in free trade – the auto industry, IT, textiles, retail – are not all-powerful. We might be talking of a new compromise under which protectionism buys political support for the priorities of key segments of US business that do retain influence within the party and in the White House and whose agendas coincide with the worldview of right-wing libertarians e.g. on tax breaks, the destruction of the EPA, the sabotaging of climate change policy, taking down Dodd-Frank etc.

The upshot might resemble the late nineteenth-century deal described by Frederick Bensel in his brilliant work on US political economy after the Civil War. For the gilded age Republican party, it was tariffs – often to protect sunset “industries” like sheep-farming –  that secured the votes for the upholding of the gold standard.

This analogy only takes us so far, however, since it is not obvious what the political economy of protection in the contemporary US actually is. It seems clear that it wins votes in key states. But does it actually serve business interests or is it more akin to a cargo cult? And are climate change denial and the denial of need for financial regulation really akin to adherence to the international gold standard?

So how does the current moment compare to the coalition that succeeded Republican hegemony in the late 19th century – the “New Deal coalition” in which the racist “solid South” combined with Northern Labour in the framework of the Democratic Party. The Trump coalition could seem like a dazed and confused version of that coalition with the coasts lopped off. And perhaps its agenda might not be that different but for World War II and the confrontation with the Soviet Union – think of the moment of 1932-1933 when the bona fide isolationists really ruled the roost in Congress. But clearly we cant get from there to here without an account of the realignment of the civil rights era and the new coalitions that emerged from the 1980s.

So here is the take away question for friends interested in American political economy: Abstract from the figure of Trump. Focus on the Republican shift to protectionism. How does that help us situate the current moment in the last century of US political economy?

related posts