Saturday, June 02, 2018

Herbert Hoover’s Ghost
By Bret Stephens, Opinion Columnist
June 1, 2018

In 2014 I published a book called “America in Retreat,” with the subtitle, “The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder.” Though an entire chapter is devoted to a critique of Tea Party foreign policy, it was mainly a lament about what I saw as President Obama’s imprudent retreat from America’s global responsibilities and the risk of returning to the disastrous foreign policy mind-set of the 1930s.

Silly me. I wrote the book one administration too soon.

That’s the conclusion to draw from Donald Trump’s long-promised and now bluntly delivered imposition of steel and aluminum tariffs on Mexico, Canada and the European Union. And that was just after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin decided to put tariffs on China “on hold” to allow negotiations to continue.

What was it that Sarah Palin once said about Obama’s foreign policy — that he was “coddling enemies and alienating allies”? Well, move over, Barack.

Those tariffs on China might still be on — with this administration, inconstancy and idiocy seem to contend like wrestlers in a W.W.E. match — but that would only compound the damage. Protectionism anywhere is invariably bad for local consumers and the global economy, but American protectionism is infinitely worse. It’s a betrayal of the liberal-international order we founded nearly eight decades ago; an invitation to anti-Americanism; a rebuff to our friends; and sometimes (Boston Tea Party, anyone?) a prelude to war.

Never mind restoring a bust of Winston Churchill to the Oval Office. The spirit that really hovers over this White House is Herbert Hoover’s.

But that’s unfair to Hoover, whose soul can now rest easy that he is no longer the worst Republican president ever. In the grip of the Great Depression, the 31st president was under intense political pressure to sign the Tariff Act of 1930, better known as Smoot-Hawley after its Republican authors in Congress. Hoover himself was a somewhat reluctant protectionist. And while 1,028 economists signed a petition imploring the president not to sign, he could not then know that “Smoot-Hawley” would become a byword for economic folly. Between 1930 and 1933, the value of global trade declined from $4.9 billion to $1.8 billion.

Trump has no such excuses. The economy is humming. The overwhelming majority of Americans want more trade deals, not fewer, and are leery of a trade war. Congressional Republicans are broadly pro-trade and aren’t trying to push the administration into a political corner. And the opposition to tariffs among professional economists is about as universal now as it was then.

The same might be said for many U.S. executives who know something about how the tariffs will work. On Friday I spoke with Gary Stein, C.E.O. of Houston-based Triple-S Steel, which sells about one million tons of steel products a year, mostly for construction and heavy manufacturing. He calls the tariffs “just juvenile.”

“These guys in Washington don’t understand how real supply lines work,” he says. “You can’t crack the economy on the end of a whip like that when you are dealing with real jobs and real people and real products coming across borders. There’s a lot of special stuff that comes from only one mill, and now suddenly you can’t get it or it’s going to cost you 25 percent more.”

So what motivates the president to pick these fights? Rust-belt politics surely plays a role. But it’s also the same ideological obsession he has held since at least the 1980s — as dated and ugly as his mullet — not to mention his sneering indifference to what was once called “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”

When the Wall Street Journal editorial board (of which I was then a member) asked Trump in 2015 whether he worried that his immigration and trade policies could have disastrous political effects in Mexico, he answered: “I don’t care about Mexico honestly, I really don’t care about Mexico.” Next month, Mexicans, who do care, will likely elect their most anti-American president in nearly 50 years.

Conservative apologists for Trump have long told us not to worry about his most extreme positions, because his sober-minded advisers would surely bring him to reason. Sure. This week one of those supposedly sober minds, Vice President Mike Pence, torpedoed relations with Canada by abruptly demanding a five-year sunset clause for a renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement.

Did most Americans even notice? Perhaps they won’t while the expansion continues to run its course, but they will feel it when it stops. The administration is blowing up the foundations of global economic order with the same mindless glee as a child popping bubble wrap. Canada now intends to retaliate with $12.8 billion worth of its own tariffs. Mexico and the European Union are set to announce retaliatory levies of their own. And these are our friends.

The darker echoes of the 1930s are sounding louder. The shadow of Hoover grows longer. We know how this movie ends. If Trump’s economic adviser Larry Kudlow had a gram of self-respect he’d resign.


Anonymous said...

Re Kudlow: Self-respect is not a positive attribute for the current administration. Toadyism, however, is doing quite nicely. The US is deteriorating in no small part because of the many mandarins who put their income and job security far ahead of any communal interest

Anonymous said...

While it is critical that we move quickly on these ill-advised initiatives, the Trump phenomenon will be over soon. While he is in power the world is continually moving on, growing and progressing in critical areas that will impact human progression. Because of him we are off-track. We have got to find a way and give thought to minimize some of his crazy initiatives, and fast-track some new initiatives as soon as he is gone so we can quickly catch up and eventually resume our leadership roles in science, technology, innovation, environment of the planet, and many other issues. If we remain crippled, we may never catch up. Maybe some people need to work on his departure, and others simultaneously working on legislation, funding, and initiatives that need to be put in place right away.

Milly from Hialeah said...

I think we have been falling behind for a very long time, and this is way before Trump was president. Everything prior was not Obama's fault and everything now is not Trump's fault.

We have to love and care for this country, first and foremost. As immigrants, we have to appreciate it double fold.

I am a Trump voter who still believes in law and order, bringing back jobs, immigration reform and putting America first. This does not mean that I am racist or am against other countries, but the richest bank in the world is The China Bank.

Our people are being disenfranchised by rich, foreign developers and WE (The PEOPLE of the U.S.A) are suffering.

STOP taking sides and focus on what we have in common. We can disagree and find common ground.

I am supporting Senator Bill Nelson against Governor Rick Scott, and As for the county, I would even vote for a democrat from North Miami before I vote for another Cuban from Hialeah - all depends on a person's ideals and morals.

We need to unite for this country and its people, remember that the people of this country come from everywhere. But, when we are here, we put this country first.

THANK YOU to the Great U.S.A. for giving us all that we have . . . And hooray to the land of the free and the brave!

Anonymous said...

This policy of taking children from parents at the border, is troubling me. I can't shake it. It is inhuman. Keep the parents and kids together, let them stay or send them back, but keep them together. All they have is each other.

Anonymous said...

The NFL controversy was played for Election Day meat for votes at the polls. The introduction of Bill Clinton and his new book was also played for impact on Election Day. From now on, everybody circle Election Days and make sure you are not being played and fall into the trap.