The Conservatives and even the Republican Party are generally not considered pro-Labour. In the aftermath of World War II, the conservative movement and the Republican Party began to adopt a more classical view of the economy, which often embraced policies that were not beneficial to American workers. The embrace of the market and “free trade” has become an ideology for many conservatives, libertarians, and Republican policymakers. However, this was not always the case. Conservatives and Republicans alike were pro-worker and pro-business at the same time. These conservatives did not worship the altar of free markets, but a balanced policy that was in the interests of both workers and business.
In 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump shocked his fellow Republicans when he campaigned on an America First platform centered on immigration and trade reform. Trump argued that for decades, free trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had not only led to the loss of manufacturing, but had decimated the middle class. He also told the nation that the United States was being exploited by China and other countries.
Ambassador Robert Lighthizer, who served as U.S. trade representative in the Trump administration, described some of the consequences of free trade agreements and granting China most-favoured-nation status :
"In the years that followed we lost millions of good jobs and saw tens of thousands of factories close. We witnessed the stagnation of wages. We saw economic division in our country grow at an alarming rate. The rich got richer and many fell out of the middle class. We ran up trillions of dollars in trade deficits—essentially shipping our wealth overseas and making our children poorer. Incredibly, much of this wealth transfer went to the People Republic of China, at best a strategic adversary."
Trump won the 2016 presidential election, and his victory was made possible by blue-collar workers who responded to his America First approach to trade policy. In his Inaugural speechPresident Trump said what many Americans think of their government and what is happening to their country:
For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington prospered, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but jobs disappeared and factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories were not your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they were celebrating in our nation’s capital, there wasn’t much to celebrate for struggling families across our territory.
President Trump referred to the “rusty factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape,” which symbolized the consequence of free trade agreements. “One by one, factories closed and left our shores, without even thinking of the millions and millions of American workers who were left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been uprooted from their homes and then redistributed around the world,” President Trump said.
“America First” and “Make America Great Again” were President Trump’s campaign themes and now in his Inaugural speech he was committed to making this philosophy a reality. “From today, a new vision will rule our land. From this day on, it will only be America First. America First. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be taken to benefit American workers and American families,” President Trump noted.
President Trump’s call to restructure trade and use tariffs as a political remedy seemed unorthodox. Trade policy has become one of the main topics of debate within the administration. Nevertheless, President Trump was resurrecting the traditional conservative view of trade. It was the American system, which was developed by Alexander Hamilton, who served as the first Treasury Secretary in the administration of President George Washington.
President Trump’s American model of economic policy is not necessarily new, but rather a rediscovery of the old Republican tradition. Patrick J. Buchanan wrote that “in moving Republicans away from globalism toward economic nationalism, Trump is not writing a new gospel. He leads a party lost away from a modernist heresy – back to the religion of old.
The American system was a political model of economic nationalism. He called for protective tariffs, a national bank and the establishment of a system to encourage internal improvements. This economic policy was advocated by Henry Clay and the Whig party and later advanced by President Abraham Lincoln and the Republican party.
The goal of protectionism “is the structuring of trade policy to protect national sovereignty, secure economic self-reliance, and ‘make America prosper first,’” Buchanan wrote.
The Republican Party, from President Lincoln to President Herbert Hoover, has supported the American system. Republican platforms have boldly asserted their support for the protective tariff and its benefits for workers. The rallying cry for protectionism in the GOP came under the slogan “Full Dinner Pail,” which was used by William McKinley during his presidential campaigns and by later Republican presidential candidates, including Calvin Coolidge. The “Full Dinner Pail” represented economic prosperity, high wages and a healthy economy. President Coolidge even credited “restrictive immigration”, a “tariff of protection” and “the economy of expenditure [limited government]as policies that not only led to economic growth, but benefited the worker.
The American system was the conservative tradition of economic policy. “President Trump and I were heirs to that tradition. The American system was in a way an ancestor of America first and we need it now more than ever,” said Ambassador Lighthizer.
With massive trade deficits, a growing reliance on foreign countries for basic necessities, and the need to bolster manufacturing, Ambassador Lighthizer is right. The nation must follow the American system. For too long, free trade ideologues who worship the altar of free markets have dominated policy making. It’s time for conservatives and the Republican Party to truly embrace “America First” and protect not just the national economy, but the well-being of working people.
“As conservatives, we must work to preserve the values that have made America great. Families, communities, and the dignity of work are among those values. We need a new American system, one that will help rebuild our country, protect our workers and their communities, and preserve our values,” said Ambassador Lighthizer.