Trump: Protectionism as Therapy for the Lost Community

The truth is that the tide only sees the progress of events, not to mention the ideological tug of war. The tug of war, then, forces the same ideologies to reconcile principles that cannot be reconciled, and they try to exist within the inconsistencies of their own contradictions. Let me explain. There are principles which are born out of ideologies that, by forcing them to operate in the concrete reality of political life, cannot be reconciled with others.

One cannot be conservative (or in classical terms what we would call conservatively liberal), for example, and be against trade by being protectionist, for example. One can, but one shouldn’t be.

This is what is happening with the Trump administration. To establish tariffs on aluminum and steel imports breaks and contradicts the orthodoxy of his Republican Party, which is forged in free trade, open competition of markets, and where the best and most efficient should win. But is this the only problem? Far from it, I think. The question is more delicate and complicated. I don’t want to say that Donald Trump is a visionary prophet. Nothing of the sort. He seems to be more of a “cunning salesman” who intuitively knows where there is a need and, against all odds, seizes the opportunity. And that “need” seems to go unnoticed by the mainstream media, which are more interested in the economic interests than, I believe, in the very reality of the situation.

The facts are the facts, and there is nothing that can be done. Trump has imposed selective tariffs on the importation of aluminum and steel, a policy that aims to challenge the Chinese (now with a lifetime president) in order to protect local industry, particularly areas devastated by globalization, the typical corners of industry where workers are displaced by competition they cannot cope with. Why this resistance? The reason is economic, but with deep cultural roots. The policy of free trade has devastated the lives of small communities. From New Hampshire to Ohio, Kentucky to Pennsylvania and other regions, the life of the small town, which revolves around industries with a sense of solidarity, as well as the communal faith of its inhabitants, have been devastated and fragmented by the eruption of technology, imported goods and the flow of immigrants driven by free trade. And this policy of open borders, when managed by the technical corporate elite, has ignored the needs and identity of the common citizen.

The historical and political support for Trump’s protectionist policy is no small thing. He finds himself in good company. There was Alexander Hamilton, the first treasury secretary, who, in 1791, spoke in defense of local industries. There was also George Washington, the first U.S. president, who proposed the Tariff Act of 1789. The reasons were the same: A free people, with neither ties nor outward commitments and who want to defend themselves, requires the protection of their own industry.

The intelligent reader will see that despite these policies having been established in the 18th century, they generated the opposite reaction at the time by the British Empire, which responded with economic liberalization, with its the “labor market flexibility” approach of the mid-19th century, Manchester school of thought.

So, this war, “trade” and otherwise, is roped to the past. It is not a Trumpian invention. Today, the disintegration of culture within liberal democracy, a culture which is fluid and shapeless without objective ethical principles and which is not defined by sovereignty, customs or limits, has resulted in restlessness, depression and a lack of meaning. The explosion in the use of opioids in dozens of communities in the United States as a substitute for meaning is reeking havoc. That’s why the connection between business and the existential should not be ignored. All of this fails to account for the information conglomerates, which are more interested in the financial side of things, given their skepticism about fundamental human values. Everything seems to be reduced to material gain.

It is, I think, the lack of meaning of the average citizen and the loss of the community that requires the presence of other virtues which cannot be derived from economic policy. The problem is not exclusively economic. It is spiritual and moral, and that’s where contemporary liberal democracy makes waves on all sides, both in the empty democracy of trade internationalists and in secularist globalism. That liberalism, although hegemonic, has failed. Man does not live by bread alone, a teaching which, because of the rejection of religious freedom within democracy itself, cannot be expressed. In an attempt that is perhaps belated and opportunistic, Trump’s policy looks to heal a painful reality caused by free trade, paradoxically generating other free trade policies.

Finally, the curious thing is the reaction that is widely held. This means war, confrontation, inflation and an unprecedented crisis, which repeats itself in a mechanical fashion because that is how the Great Depression of 1929 began. Even though it is historically dangerous to compare one era with another, (Trump is not Herbert Hoover) there is no denying that this exercise is useful. And Trump knows it. That’s why, when he has been asked about the ideological inconsistency with his party or the possibility of a trade war, Trump has said graphically and mockingly, “Well, sometimes it’s good to have war!”*

But, again, these economic explanations do not get anywhere near the heart of the matter. It is life and its meaning, and not the economy, that is the problem. In a community which has been devastated by unemployment, where the family has collapsed as a result of the irruption of technology (being virtual and divorced from reality) and worse, where internet commerce has destroyed the small shops where the neighborhood used to meet, the catastrophic reactions of economists financed by large universities or bureaucrats in Washington or Brussels has amounted to nothing. I believe the center of the radical debate lies in what it means to be a person and how current liberal democracy reduces people to materialistic beings and nothing more. The rest is obvious, if not nearly worthless.

*Editor’s note: The author is apparently referring to Donald Trump’s statement that trade wars are “good” and “easy to win.”

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