There are those who argue that Trumpism is not an ideology but rather an aberrant cult of personality. They are mistaken. Donald Trump is not capable of enunciating a coherent ideology, but he does adhere to a core set of beliefs, which drives the policy decisions of his administration. More importantly, Trumpism is a subset of a dangerous right-wing ideology that has infected many democracies. But here’s the thing: We now know for certain that it does not work, and that is the sword we can use to defeat it.
Call it populism, call it nationalism — regardless of the label, it is undeniable that this nationalist-populist movement has momentum around the world. It includes think tanks and institutes, magazines and journals, and political leaders and parties, some of whom now govern nation-states including the United States. This movement seeks to replace a system based on the values of liberal democracy with one based on loyalty to race, nationality, and culture. In February, leaders of this new movement gathered for a conference in Rome at which they frankly laid out their beliefs and objectives.
So far, when these ideologues have attained power they have governed as authoritarians – including American President Donald Trump. This movement looks a lot like the precursor to the return of fascist totalitarianism.
The core tenet of this new ideology is the rejection of “globalism” in favor of “nationalism.” Across the world, therefore, the first priority of these nationalists is restricting immigration. The rest of the platform follows from anti-globalism: protectionist trade policies, and populist attacks on the media and establishment institutions. Trump is the farthest thing from a deep thinker, but it is not a coincidence that his administration is following this road map.
Trump has always been a protectionist, a nativist, and a populist. He told America who he was and how he would govern, and he has been true to his word. And he has surrounded himself with advisors immersed in the new nationalist populism.
While the overwhelming majority of economists reject protectionism, Trump’s trade advisor, Peter Navarro, is perhaps America’s loudest voice in favor of raising tariffs. Navarro is the field marshal running the Trump trade war. Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s nativist immigration policies, has long been active in the movement to restrict legal and illegal immigration. And Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign manager and White House senior counselor, has become perhaps America’s most prominent nationalist opinion leader and still plays a major role in Trump’s world.
Over the past three-and-a-half years, Team Trump has implemented big chunks of their agenda. They have raised tariffs, and cut legal immigration.
Policies flow from ideology, and ultimately polices must be judged by the extent to which they actually benefit real people. Three-and-a-half years into this nationalist-populist experiment, we now have enough data to make clear that this agenda has failed — or, over the long term, will fail — to deliver the promised outcomes. Trumpism doesn’t work.
Let’s start with trade. Upon taking office, Trump and Navarro argued that allowing China to join the World Trade Organization, and negotiating multilateral agreements like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, were job-killing mistakes that led to the loss of America’s manufacturing sector. All the evidence at the time said otherwise, but that didn’t deter Trump and Navarro. They promised to use tariffs to force our trading partners to negotiate “better” agreements. Trump told us that “trade wars are good, and easy to win.”
So Trump dramatically raised tariffs on China, Canada, Mexico, and our European allies. To the surprise of absolutely no one, these countries responded with higher tariffs on our products, and the trade war was on.
Has the combat resulted in better trade deals? No. The new agreement with Canada and Mexico is not very different from the old NAFTA, but the changes that were made were intended to reduce trade. As Republican Senator Pat Toomey put it, “It is the only trade pact ever meant to diminish trade.” And Trump’s vaunted Phase 1 agreement with China only rolled back some of the tariffs and restrictions imposed by each side. Tariffs remain extraordinarily high.
What has the Trump trade war wrought?
- New jobs? No, economic growth was slowed by the trade war.
- Farm bankruptcies are at an eight-year high. Farm prices and income are down while suicide rates among farmers are rising.
- The rest of the world has continued to move toward free trade without us.
- And every day this trade war continues, China is finding new ways to meet its agricultural needs without American imports, making recovery more difficult. For instance, Canada has dramatically increased wheat exports to China: A USDA study shows that Canadian shipments of wheat to China have grown over 400 percent in two years. The report said, “Canada’s share of total Chinese imports of wheat has rocketed above 60% in marketing year 2018/19, up from 32% in marketing year 2017/18, as U.S. wheat exports to China have plunged.”
Economists are notorious for being unable to agree on much, but one thing that the overwhelming majority of economists agree on is that free trade is good and protectionism does not work. Trump and Navarro thought they knew better. Now we know for a fact they are wrong.
This brings us to the centerpiece of the nationalist agenda: dramatically reducing immigration. Trump is not just building a wall, deporting those who are undocumented, and enforcing existing law, but actively working to cut legal immigration. The Trump administration has done everything in its power to shut out immigrants and asylum seekers.
Trump makes the same argument that nativist populists have always made: Immigrants are a drag on the economy, fail to assimilate, and make our communities less safe. None of it is supported by facts.
In fact, all the data suggests that the American economy needs more immigrants, not fewer. Consider the startling facts outlined in a recent Pew Research Center analysis of world population:
For the first time in modern history, the world’s population is expected to virtually stop growing by the end of this century, due in large part to falling global fertility rates. … Between 2020 and 2100, 90 countries are expected to lose population. Two-thirds of all countries and territories in Europe (32 of 48) are expected to lose population by 2100.
But immigration can and should keep our economy growing, if we remain open to it:
In the Northern America region, migration from the rest of the world is expected to be the primary driver of continued population growth. The immigrant population in the United States is expected to see a net increase of 85 million over the next 80 years (2020 to 2100) according to the UN projections, roughly equal to the total of the next nine highest countries combined.
Economic growth, which sustains the American dream of everyone having a chance at a better life, is absolutely dependent on the United States keeping its doors open to new immigrants, who supply the new workers needed to keep growth going. Anti-immigrant Trumpism doesn’t work. It is, in fact, economic suicide. It can only be justified by a desire to keep America as white as possible for as long as possible.
In the end, that is what the Trumpist movement is really about: a struggle over race and culture. Millions of Americans now find their primary political motivation in identity politics. The country is changing and becoming more diverse. To many Americans, this is a frightening development. To many others, it is a wonderful change. I’m not sure these two camps can be reconciled.
But in the middle, there are millions of other voters who actually care about results. They want government to perform. They want peace. They want safety net programs to be there when they need them. They want good jobs for themselves and their children so they can live the American dream. Nationalist populism does not deliver those results. It doesn’t work. And that is the message that moderates need to deliver.
Moderates also know that socialism — especially of the Marxist-Leninist variety — doesn’t work either.
So what does work? Evidence and history say that what works is what Teddy Roosevelt called progressivism, what his cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt called the New Deal, and what the British know as One Nationism. As I wrote in an earlier essay:
One Nation leaders would argue that to thrive in this new era, America must be a free, open society in which everyone can go as far as their efforts and talents will take them, while maintaining a robust safety net for those who need assistance. We should embrace capitalism, free enterprise, and economic growth, and at the same time enact programs to protect less fortunate Americans. And we must remain committed to energetic American leadership around the world to protect democracy and human rights. …
If this sounds familiar, it is, because it reflects the common-sense, reformist, global-minded policies that once guided both Republicans and Democrats and built one of the greatest nations in the history of the world.
Perhaps bad ideas need to collapse under the weight of their own failure. Much of the world tried Marxism and watched it fail. Now America and other democracies (or former democracies) are giving nationalist populism a try — and it, too, is failing. But we should hasten Trumpism’s demise by loudly and consistently pointing out that it just doesn’t work.
Photo Credit: “Trump 2016 Campaign Sign – ‘Make America Great Again'” by Tony Webster is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0