The 31st President of the US Herbert Hoover and the 45th President Donald Trump Getty Images

The Republicans’ Protectionist Pedigree

In recent decades, US Republicans have tended to embrace free trade more willingly than US Democrats. But, during most of its first century, the Republican Party was protectionist in both word and deed, and it has elected the four most aggressively protectionist presidents of the last 50 years.

CAMBRIDGE – US President Donald Trump’s aggressive approach to trade, which was on stark display at last week’s G7 summit in Quebec, has elicited widespread derision. Critics point out that his tariffs hurt the domestic economy – by raising costs for consumers and producers, and reducing foreign sales of farmers and other exporters – while undermining America’s relationships with its own allies. But there is one point that many observers get wrong: contrary to popular belief, Trump’s tariffs are not an unprecedented departure from historical Republican orthodoxy.

True, in recent decades Republican politicians have tended to embrace free trade more willingly than Democrats. But during most of the first century after its founding in 1854, the Republican Party was protectionist in both word and deed. Like their predecessors, the Whigs, Republicans favored high import tariffs in order to advance the economic interests of manufacturers in the Northeast who feared competition from Europe.

The Democrats, by contrast, represented agriculture-exporting states, and thus favored trade. As Douglas Irwin makes clear in his history of US trade policy, Clashing Over Commerce, farmers recognized – even without training in trade theory or targeted retaliation by foreign trading partners – that import barriers were bad for them economically.

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