Can 'economic nationalism' keep more jobs in US?

Amid all the uncertainty over what sort of president Donald Trump will be, he is making strong hints that the backbone of his administration could be a doctrine that prioritizes American workers over globalism.

Carlo Allegr's/Reuters/File
Steve Bannon, who was President-elect Donald Trump's campaign CEO, is pictured backstage after a campaign event in Phoenix Oct. 29.

It is a small victory. Donald Trump, it seems, has pressured air-conditioning manufacturer Carrier to keep close to 1,000 jobs at its Indiana-based plant instead of moving them abroad.

The move doesn’t significantly change the trend lines on manufacturing in the United States. But it makes a statement. Amid all the uncertainty over what sort of president Mr. Trump will be on immigration, foreign policy, or health-care reform, he is making strong hints that the backbone of his administration could be a doctrine of “economic nationalism.”

In some ways, it is an attempt to craft a new brand of Reaganism, with a twist. Like Reagan, Trump looks likely to slash taxes to spark investment and spending, as well as loosen regulations – all in the name of jobs. But while Reagan’s conservative agenda launched the policies that would start to fuel income inequality – benefiting the rich far more than the middle class – Trump appears to want to level the playing field, at least through the levers of trade.

It is here where the influence of chief strategist Stephen Bannon could be most apparent. While Mr. Bannon’s leadership of Breitbart News has raised concerns about his connection to strains of white nationalist thought, his past suggests that his greatest passion is to be an avenger for the working class – and against the elites he sees as profiting from them.

“There is something troubling the republic,” says John Rennie Short, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and author of “Stress Testing the USA.” “The mass of the population have felt ignored as the flood of affluence only went to the top few, and it’s all come amid a bankruptcy of political ideas.” 

The tack toward economic nationalism "is an incredible shakeup,” he adds, “leading to … space for a new debate to open up. And it’s not all about the [white nationalism of the] alt-right. It’s really a progressive debate about workers’ rights, space and time for families to have living wages, what we’re going to do about older workers – in other words, what are we going to do about the black holes of capitalism?”

It is a curious calling for a Manhattan real estate magnate. Bannon, too, was once a banker at Goldman Sachs. But his view of America's greatness appears shaped in no small part by his father, a telephone lineman and high school grad who lost much of his retirement investment in the 2008 financial crash. Meanwhile, the big banks got Washington bailouts.

That disdain for the economic elite spreads beyond the Great Recession, however, into a worldview that America’s rich have gotten richer by selling out the workers beneath them. This, Bannon says, is the moment to flip the script.

“The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia,” Bannon told Hollywood Reporter media critic Michael Wolff recently. “We’re going to build an entirely new political movement [focused on jobs and] … as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution – conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”

The promise is the one that defined America’s middle class for decades.

It’s a promise of “a country where if one member of your household works hard, that household has a decent standard of living and the children … have a fair shot at a better one,” writes Michael Brendan Dougherty of The Week.

That prospect helped Trump win the Rust Belt, working-class voters once known as “Reagan Democrats.”

“Two decades of various presidencies … have continued this ignorance of middle America, the Rust Belt – this notion of being enamored by the rest of the world before us, which has come back to bite,” says Frank Zerunyan, a professor of government at the University of Southern California.

Some also worry that economic nationalism, by its very nature, equals “economic ruin,” as The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens put it.

In short, the United States cannot step back from the world without losing out, critics say. 

Trump’s plans are in the short-term “likely to have some benefits for some local communities, but in the long term no amount of protectionism is going to stop you from losing your competitive edge,” says Samuel Gregg, research director at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich. “At the moment, the pendulum has shifted toward fixing an immediate problem … but those programs will all have to be wound back precisely because they’ll cause inefficiencies.”

More deeply, “economic nationalism” can blur into “ethno-nationalism,” argues David Lublin, a political scientist at American University.

Protectionism tends to yield short-term gains that can quickly wash away. If that happens under Trump, Mr. Lublin wonders: Who will be blamed?

The fact is, America has no ethnic or cultural nationalism – like European countries have. America has been extraordinary precisely because it has developed a “civic nationalism that’s tolerant and inclusive.”

But he worries that increasing polarization has “already started to chip away at our civic nationalist framework. When you start blaming other people for [the ills of society], you’re destroying what makes America work.”

Critics point out that the Trump cabinet is being filled with billionaires and that the tax plan he floated during the campaign would cut taxes most for the very wealthy. And it’s unclear yet what the top priorities will be once Trump takes office in January.

Yet there is an increasing sense that the old economic regime at least needs to be tweaked. An opioid epidemic and declining life spans for middle-age white Americans speak to a population that is unsettled.

This week, Trump adviser Stephen Moore – a free trade proponent and founder of the Club for Growth – told House lawmakers that he has had a fundamental rethink of the country’s economic strategies. He noted the party’s shift from Reagan-style conservatism to a new Trump populism.

Reagan “rebuilt the American economy and caused a quarter-century-long boom with wealth creation and prosperity nearly unrivaled in American history,” Mr. Moore writes this week in The Patriot Post. “But this is 2016, not 1986. The world is a different place. The voters spoke with a thunderclap, opting for Trump’s new breed of economic populism.”

He added: “Trade and immigration are unambiguously good for the country – but it will have to be done in ways that are supported by the American people, not shoved down our throats by the elites.”

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