The GOP's Embrace of Economic Nationalism
Trump was just the beginning.
by Henry Thomson and Michael Hechter
“When was the last time you saw a Chevrolet in Tokyo?”
— Donald Trump announcing his presidential campaign, June 16, 2015.
There is a fundamental flaw in any attempt to draw a line under—cauterize the wound of?—the Trump presidency. There are no assurances he will not run for president again (in fact, from today’s vantage point it seems likely), and he is playing a direct role in elections happening right now. Candidates in the ongoing Republican primaries have kept his Mar-a-Lago resort busy this past year, making the pilgrimage to Florida to curry favor with the former president, each hoping to become his officially endorsed horse in their race. As primary votes are counted, over-performance of Trump-backed candidates is seen as a positive indicator of his power, while a trouncing despite Trump’s support casts doubt on the former president’s brand.
Yet Trump’s record is mixed in some of the most prominent races he has waded into so far. In the Ohio Senate Republican primary, Trump endorsed J.D. Vance, the Peter Thiel-backed author and venture capitalist, only a couple of weeks before the vote on May 3rd. The late endorsement was decisive. In the Georgia gubernatorial Republican primary, by contrast, Trump-backed David Perdue was thumped by 52 points by the incumbent, Brian Kemp. Despite campaign rally appearances and prominent roles in Perdue campaign commercials, Trump’s endorsement seems to have done little good in the battleground state he lost narrowly in 2020.
It is also difficult to predict how Trump’s support will affect crucial races later this year. In Arizona, where we teach at Arizona State University, primaries are not held until early August. When one of us asked former senator Jeff Flake in early 2021 if Trump’s influence here had staying power, he was sure that it would soon fade. Meanwhile, Blake Masters, who in Peter Thiel shares a major patron with J.D. Vance, is a political novice who entered the Senate primary for Arizona as underdog to state Attorney General Mark Brnovich. Masters was endorsed by Trump as “a great modern-day thinker” on June 2nd and is making strong headway in the contest. But nothing is certain. As the mixed bag of races shows, Trump’s future as a candidate and GOP kingmaker is a moving target.
Nevertheless, there is one aspect of Trump’s legacy that is firmly taking root: a new brand of right-wing economic nationalism.
When Trump descended the Trump Tower escalator to announce his candidacy for president in 2015, one of his first messages to prospective voters was an eccentric critique of economic globalization, asking why U.S. auto makers cannot compete with the Japanese, why America cannot “beat” China in trade deals, and declaring that Mexico is “not our friend” but instead trying to “kill” the U.S. economy. Trump’s message was unorthodox, to say the least, and quickly dismissed by experts as economically illiterate and charged with racial animus. Nonetheless, his nationalist economic policy platform resonated with crucial voters in battleground states who felt left behind by globalization and played a major role in his narrow victory over Hillary Clinton.
When he entered office, this bull-in-a-china-shop agenda caused waves. The administration began a tit-for-tat battle against China and other countries by placing tariffs on imports of aluminum, steel and manufactured goods. Trump renegotiated the twenty-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement, molding it into the 2018 US-Mexico-Canada-Agreement, which included new protection for the American auto and steel industries and for organized labor. Perhaps Trump’s signature campaign policy pledge was to build a “big, beautiful wall” on the southern border to curb uncontrolled immigration into the U.S. from Mexico—although the reality was the construction of around 450 miles of steel bollards, mostly in Arizona. Nevertheless, these policies upended the old neoliberal consensus on the right in favor of economic globalization, such as free trade, relative openness to immigration, and support for international institutions.
Trump’s nationalist policy revolt may turn out to be a revolution. The Republican Party has been remarkably quick to learn the lessons of his 2016 victory, shed its previous image as the party of management, big business and globalization, and rebrand as the “party of the working class.” Candidates and a growing cadre of thinkers are seriously engaging once-taboo ideas like industrial policy, expanding the welfare state, empowering organized labor, breaking up and reorganizing tech giants, and imposing new regulations on the financial services industry.
Mitt Romney is advocating new monthly payments to families with children. Josh Hawley has been a vocal critic of major social media and technology platforms such as Facebook and Google, and advocates sweeping new regulations for the sector. Marco Rubio prominently supports initiatives to bolster the U.S. semiconductor industry. Raising alarm about America’s shrinking advantage over Chinese competitors and highlighting the crucial role that advanced chips play in today’s economy, he is calling for federal investment in the sector and laws banning the export of chip-making know-how.
J.D. Vance, meanwhile, has made the protection of the U.S. manufacturing sector and opposition to free trade touchstones of his candidacy for Senate. He supports Trump’s tariffs on Chinese imports, but also calls for new taxes on American companies with employees overseas and an overhaul of the U.S. immigration system to admit fewer, higher-skilled workers. Similarly, Blake Masters endorses a complete rethink of U.S. trade policy with the primary goal of maximizing American manufacturing employment and—unsurprisingly for a candidate from southern Arizona—massive investment to secure the U.S.-Mexico border against uncontrolled immigration.
If Vance and Masters enter the Senate in 2023 they will join a relatively young and dynamic group of GOP economic nationalists including Rubio, Romney, Hawley and others such as Tom Cotton, another key voice pushing for active measures to support the American semiconductor industry. This nationalist faction will be supported by a growing network of policy wonks and activists who are earnestly slaying the sacred cows of neoliberal economics and show no signs of letting up. Some of these were key figures in Trump’s 2016 campaign and his presidential administration, and have become embroiled in contention surrounding the 2020 election and events of January 6th—most notably Steve Bannon and Peter Navarro. Others, such as Oren Cass, chief of the American Compass think-tank, were not as closely associated with Trump but have been working diligently to advance the economic nationalist agenda.
It’s clear that Trump’s economic nationalism, whether advanced further by Trump himself or taken up by a new cadre of politicians and experts, has busted old orthodoxies on the right and opened new possibilities for policy debates. Whether or not he survives 2022 as a candidate or kingmaker, he has left a surprising and important legacy.
Henry Thomson is Associate Professor at the School of Politics and Global Studies, Arizona State University.
Michael Hechter is a Foundation Professor at the School of Politics and Global Studies, Arizona State University.