In the face of Trump’s protectionism, Roland Valentine Stewart argues that US liberals should re-embrace a liberal cause.
Free trade is back. So too, apparently, is protectionism. Or maybe it depends on who you are listening to. What’s clear, though, is that Britain’s EU referendum and Donald Trump’s election victory have woken political debate from a decades-long slumber. We are discussing big issues again. Trade as a topic is making a mainstream political comeback. Terms like ‘unilateral free trade’ have escaped from their textbook imprisonment and are now rampaging all over Twitter. The moment is ripe for major political realignments. Many conservatives are confidently reclaiming trade protectionism as their rallying cry. And many liberals are…well, not for the first time, confused.
On the morning of Donald Trump’s triumph I had Bruce Springsteen on my mind: the bruised and battered voice of industrial America, a hillbilly’s poet laureate. Probably my favourite ‘left-leaning’ song writer growing up, his albums were often the soundtrack to journeys in my conservative-leaning father’s conservative-leaning car. As I walked wearily to work that morning, his song My Hometown floated into my consciousness:
“…they’re closing down the textile mill, across the railroad tracks. Foreman says ‘these jobs are going boys, and they ain’t coming back – to your hometown….”
This was on my mind because nothing better illustrates the realignment taking place in American politics than the ideological chasm separating the Boss from the people who appear in his songs and buy his records. He had come out strongly for his candidate, Hillary Clinton, but the Hometown of his song – mill-less and jobless – had just come out stronger for DJT. Trump’s vision for America was a return to the country Springsteen sings about – through a policy of trade protectionism. Appalachians loved it; Springsteen was horrified.
To a conservative there is something satisfying in this irony. Trump’s ideas are so old they seem new, so conservative they now seem, well, left-wing. He advocates a protectionism in trade that might defend Springsteen’s America, but which harks back to a traditional economic conservatism with which Springsteen-style liberals do not want to identify. After all, ‘liberalism’ has undergone a Dictionary definition U-turn in America, abandoning completely the small-government, laissez-faire ideology of liberalism’s founders, and has embraced the primacy of the state.
Before Trump, the Left had ideological space of their own to blame ‘neo-liberals’ like Reagan and Thatcher, and policies like free trade, for their hollowed-out towns and factories. They could unite in attacking ‘the market’, that nemesis of big government, as it cruelly annihilated manufacturing, pushing good jobs abroad to countries where labour is cheaper. Yet now the Left has a problem: Donald Trump agrees with them, and they don’t like sharing his hymn sheet.
Faced with Trump, liberals should take another look at the merits of free trade. In doing so they may rediscover themselves and their history. For free trade was always a liberal, working man’s cause. When Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel embraced free trade in Britain by repealing the protectionist Corn Laws in 1846, the Tories forced him from office and for a century cursed his name.
It was radical liberals like Cobden and Bright all along who had pushed for free trade, the lower food prices it would bring, and the barriers between nations it would overcome with the moral zeal of the modern lefty: ‘There are thousands of homes in England…where wives, mothers and children are dying of hunger’, Cobden told Bright. ‘I would advise you to come with me, and we will never rest till the Corn Laws are repealed.’ Sixty years later, when the British Liberal Party smashed the Conservatives in the 1906 General Election, Conservative unease with free trade was central to their defeat. Since protectionism would almost certainly mean higher food prices, the urban poor backed the free-trading Liberals who promised them the “big loaf”.
Only in more recent decades has free trade appeared dirty and ‘conservative’ to left-wing eyes, bringing to mind inferior imports and dead-end jobs ahead of cheap food and higher real wages. It has been blamed for leaving behind industrial workers as Western economies see services boom. What happened to British shipping? What romance can there be in a Wear-side call-centre?
Fair or not, the modern Left has abandoned free trade as a moral, liberal cause, as the UK’s EU referendum highlighted. When supposedly ‘conservative’ free trader Michael Gove proposed leaving the protectionist EU customs union, former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown tied himself in ideological knots: ‘Gove: Brexit means opening the door to cheap food worldwide’ he tweeted mockingly, ‘Goodbye UK Agriculture. Been nice knowing you.’
Apparently, modern liberals like Ashdown favour taking wealth away from (often poor) consumers, and giving it to big farming and big business producers, insulated from market forces, without any hint of irony.
Yet clarity looks nearer at hand. Donald Trump is taking these ‘modern liberal’ arguments to their logical conclusion. ‘Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength’ he declared at his inauguration, and he plans border taxes on foreign imports to protect American jobs.
The response from the Left has been predictable yet odd. They must oppose him because they loathe him. Yet in opposing him, they are having to re-embrace free trade. Liberal luminaries at the World Economic Forum trumpet it, conveniently forgetting their implicit support for the protectionist EU customs union during Britain’s referendum. Francois Hollande has called Trump’s protectionism ‘the worst response’. Just don’t mention the Common Agricultural Policy, which slaps an average 15% import duty on goods from outside the Single Market.
Ultimately, Trump is doing liberals a favour: He is allowing them to be economically liberal again. He is releasing them from one of modern liberalism’s many contradictions.
Hostility to him helps liberals realise that protectionism fits more neatly with their clichéd image of isolated nations pulling up drawbridges than with their own self-proclaimed openness and internationalism.
Perhaps Trump’s greatest service, especially to post-Brexit Europe, can be in reminding the left of free trade’s benefits, including cheaper food, fitter, more productive economies, businesses focusing supply on areas in which there is real, as opposed to manufactured, demand, and closer ties between nations. Perhaps he can remind them that free trade was a cause of the working poor, and should be again. With Brexit and Trump reviving old, forgotten debates, maybe now is the time for liberals like Springsteen to return to older liberal concerns.
President Trump can make free trade a left-wing cause again. And that’s a good thing.
Roland Valentine Stewart is a Staff Writer for The Quad. He read History at the University of Cambridge.
Featured photo by Gage Skidmore, used under Creative Commons Share-alike 2.0 Generic.