Since the campaign, it has been evident that President Donald Trump is not a conventional Republican. Indeed, he has departed from conventional Republican policies numerous times, leaving lawmakers with an uncomfortable dilemma with which they will have to wrestle when deciding how to campaign in the upcoming midterms in November.
Most recently, Trump’s departure from conventional Republican thought has become evident with his attitude towards free trade. Indeed, Ronald Reagan, a Republican President, announced his desire for a North American free trade deal when he announced his candidacy, and by the end of his administration, was able to negotiate the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement (CUSTFA). A larger free-trade zone which included Mexico was already in the works, which we know today as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), and was ratified under the Clinton administration. In August 2017, Trump described it as the ‘worst trade deal ever made’, and threatened to terminate the agreement.
A key distinction, in general at least, between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party is the Republican Party’s commitment to the protection of the rights of American citizens afforded to them by the 2nd Amendment. The National Rifle Association (NRA), who commonly use the slogan ‘I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands’, spent $54m in the 2016 election, including the $30.3m which went toward the campaign of the President himself. However, recently, the President said ‘I like taking the guns early… to go to court [presumably, to prevent the Parkland shooter from obtaining firearms] would have taken a long time’. Vice-President Mike Pence, in a rare occurrence, openly disagreed with the President’s stance, and advised the President to ‘allow due process, so that no one’s rights are trampled’.
In March 2018, Republican lawmakers were presented with a dilemma. Trump imposed tariffs on steel and aluminium of 25% and 10% respectively. Currently, the March tariffs affect all countries with the exception of Canada and Mexico, so long as they cooperate with the NAFTA renegotiations. Prior to the President’s decision, a representative of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, a Republican, said that ‘the Speaker is hoping the president will consider the unintended consequences of this idea and look at other approaches before moving forward’. The Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, openly disagrees with the President over the tariffs. He also disagrees with the President regarding NAFTA, which he called ‘a big winner’. He went on to say that Republicans are feeling ‘genuine concern’ that Trump’s tariffs would ‘escalate into something much broader’.
Although President Trump is not the first modern Republican to use protectionist policies, as President George W. Bush imposed similar tariffs in 2002 until 2003, he is the first to be vocally anti-free trade to such an extent. The President’s Twitter account has provided an insight into the thought process involved in the creation of the new tariffs.
On March 2nd, Trump tweeted ‘We must protect our country and our workers. Our steel industry is in bad shape. IF YOU DON’T HAVE STEEL, YOU DON’T HAVE A COUNTRY!’.
It is difficult to imagine that a country that does not have a strong steel industry ceases to be a country. However, let us be generous to the President. As it is a tweet, perhaps it should not be taken literally. It is possible that the President means that you cannot have a strong country without a strong steel industry. Yet, Israel is not even among the top 66 listed countries of steel producers according to World Steel. It is unlikely that the President believes that Israel is not a country.
Also on March 2nd, Trump tweeted ‘When a country (USA) is losing many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with, trade wars are good, and easy to win. Example, when we are down $100 billion with a certain country and they get cute, don’t trade anymore- we win big. It’s easy!’.
It is unclear what is meant by this tweet. Firstly, it is impossible to lose money on trade in the way that the President has described. In the President’s scenario, it appears that he believes that the United States has lost $100bn in that the USA is $100bn poorer than it was [presumably prior to trade, which makes little sense]. That is not how trade works. A $100bn deficit does not mean that the United States has lost $100bn. The money that the USA has ‘lost’ (meaning, the $100bn more that is spent in imports than is gained in exports) does not simply disappear. A dollar is still a dollar, no money is ‘lost’ in a trade deficit.
Trump evidently desires a trade surplus for the United States. However, there is no evidence to suggest that trade surpluses directly correlate with the overall economic performance of a country. Indeed, the United States had a trade surplus under Gerald Ford, yet experienced heavy recession.
In short, Republicans are now faced with two prospects. Either, Republicans who are up for election must abandon what they actually believe in, and depart from conventional Republican principles, in the hope that the President will support them in their re-election campaigns, or they must distance themselves from him and return to their bases, but risk defying a President who has a history of attacking even those in his own party.
Bizarrely, both Republicans and Democrats currently seem at odds with the President, and it is unlikely that either will want to be associated with him in the midterms.
In a way, Trump may be performing a valuable service to American democracy. It is also, at the same time, unintended. By alienating both parties, Trump encourages a separation between Congress and the Executive that has, unfortunately, appeared fused along partisan lines in recent years.