by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Prominent conservative supporters of President Trump often defend his trade protectionism by favorably comparing it to the policies of President Ronald Reagan. Indeed, just last week, Henry Olsen and Victor Davis Hanson both defended Trump’s promises to block imports, tear up our trade agreements, and “fix” the trade balance by asserting that his efforts are simply the modern manifestation of successful Reaganite protectionism. Such claims, however, emphasize Reagan’s discrete anti-trade actions while ignoring their historical context, woeful results, and inapplicability to today’s global economy. Trumpist efforts to save U.S. jobs through higher tariffs, bilateral trade deals, and lower trade deficits can find no “conservative” justification in Reagan-era trade actions. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
The Reagan administration did indeed pursue unilateral import restrictions and foreign-trade “enforcement” actions, but history shows that — unlike protectionist policies proposed by Trump — such moves were intended to liberalize trade in a manner consistent with the economic mainstream. A strong and vocal advocate of free trade, Reagan frequently sounded the alarm against the siren song of protectionism. In his 1988 State of the Union address, for example, he warned that trade wars would “close doors, create greater barriers, and destroy millions of jobs,” adding that “protectionism is destructionism.” Reagan also often sought to educate his fellow Americans on the U.S. trade balance, even extemporaneously (and correctly) explaining at a 1985 press conference that trade deficits often correlate with job growth and economic vitality.