Three weeks from today, Americans finally will have a chance to vote for president of the United States — hundreds of other offices on ballots across the country. As a presidential historian who has written histories of presidential campaigning, of various presidents, of First Ladies, including Hillary Clinton when she was in that symbolic role, and, most recently, of the Clintons and the 1990s in The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, every day until Election Day I will post an article putting this election in historical context, trying to explain this wild and wacky race using history as our guide. So here it goes, with hashtag #2016incontext
Among the bizarre twists in this election is that Donald Trump is betraying Ronald Reagan’s magnanimous American nationalism – which charmed a generation — and channeling Herbert Hooverism — which alienated generations…
Donald Trump Resurrects Hooverism — a disastrous Republican strategy
With the bully’s instinct for the American amygdala, the brain’s center of aggression, Donald Trump bashes free trade and open immigration. Feeling pressured from Trump and Bernie Sanders Democrats, Hillary Clinton has abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In demonizing free trade and immigrants, Trump is resurrecting the constrained conservatism that made Herbert Hoover epitomize Republican reaction for decades. Someone should warn Trump that, ultimately, Hooverism works no better than McCarthyism. Historically, free trade and open immigration have fueled prosperity not undermined it.
The trade and immigration debates exploit anxieties about change in this most dynamic of countries. Trump’s Hooverism echoes the American Revolutionary’s instinct for autonomy. In reacting to British-imposed duties like those in the Stamp Act, in dumping British tea, colonists linked consuming homegrown products with feeling independent. Similarly, Trump’s nativism manipulates America’s historic E Pluribus Unum conundrum: how do we build one nation out of many? Ironically, nativists reflect America’s powerful assimilatory mechanism: the grandson of a German immigrant whose Americanism was questioned when he arrived in 1885 – and the husband of a more recent immigrant — Trump now resists the newest newcomers.
Protectionists throughout the nineteenth century believed that taxing foreign competitors with tariffs would nurture America’s young industries. Similarly, nativists believed that limiting the labor supply would provide jobs for Americans. Yet this “Don’t Tread on Me” mix of economics and nationalism has been too pinched. America’s liberal nationalism worked best when it was magnanimous. America has flourished by absorbing new people and trading with minimal restrictions.
The often-arcane tariff issue bedeviled candidates throughout the 1800s. In 1844, Democrats nominated the first “dark horse,” James Knox Polk. There remains “but one question which can by any possibility defeat your election,” Senator Robert J. Walker, a leading Democrat, warned. “It is the tariff.” In 1880, the political novice General Winfield Scott Hancock correctly called the tariff “a local question” in an interview because different regions wanted more or less protection depending on what they exported or imported. But the tariff was too potent symbolically for such nuance. “That,” Republican Edwin Cowles chuckled, “is one interview too many.”
Most Americans thought they settled these issues in the 1930s. Herbert Hoover, the dour engineer, endorsed a harsh tariff and limited immigration as the economy crashed. Although historians still debate how much the tariffs raised on 20,000 imported goods exacerbated the Great Depression, the Smooth-Hawley Act Hoover signed in 1930 symbolized the dangers of raising such high barriers for imports that affected nations retaliate by limiting American exports. And the Germans’ murder of six million Jews offered a damning verdict on Republicans’ immigration restrictions in the 1920s, intensified by Hoover’s executive order in 1930, reducing immigration another 90 percent to “protect American workingmen from further competition for positions by new alien immigration….”
In the Democrats’ comic book version of history, the jaunty, generous Franklin D. Roosevelt, swept away Herbert Hooover’s pinched protectionism and negative nativism, with a wave of a Camel cigarette inserted elegantly into its aristocratic holder. Actually, FDR was a transition figure. His Secretary of State Cordell Hull championed free trade, making it a defining principle for Roosevelt and his successors. And while Roosevelt mischievously reminded the Daughters of the American Revolution that “you and I … are descended from immigrants and revolutionists,” many Roosevelt subordinates maintained the “paper wall” of bureaucratic regulations that doomed European Jews by preventing their immigration.
Still, after FDR, free trade and open immigration became pillars of America’s Cold War success. “World prosperity … requires that we do all we can to expand world trade,” Harry Truman said. Barry Goldwater was also a free-trader, but his cranky conservatism – and Richard Nixon’s edginess — made it easy for the left to caricature Republicanism as reactionary and Hooverite, until Ronald Reagan’s expansive, smiley-faced conservatism endorsed free trade, along with “our own immigrant heritage, and our capacity to welcome those from other lands.”
In that spirit, in December 1992, as his presidency ended, the Republican George H. W. Bush signed NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, to open commerce with Mexico and Canada. To ensure that Congress ratified the treaty, Bush’s Democratic successor Bill Clinton worked closely with Republican free traders. A crazy idea of Reagan’s to unite “the people of the Western Hemisphere in a bond of mutually beneficial exchange,” now became a bipartisan presidential project.
Clinton secured more concessions from Mexico, then arm-twisted skeptical Democrats in an in-your-face Lyndon Johnson way. And he wooed the American people. When Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush visited the White House for the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords signing in September 1993, Clinton convened a pro-NAFTA press conference with the ex-presidents. Forced to improvise because his note cards scrambled, the president nevertheless smoothly made the sale. Clinton linked opening trade to the free circulation of goods and ideas encouraged by the Berlin Wall’s fall. He predicted that NAFTA would “generate” many “jobs of tomorrow …. by fostering an export boom to Mexico.” Recognizing “trade as more of an opportunity than a threat,” most Americans backed Clinton’s free trade policies, just as two-thirds supported his crime bill and welfare reform too.
Dismissing these moves as Clinton just acting like a Reaganite Democrat misses Bill Clinton’s core identity as a forward-thinking centrist. Clinton had long warned about the real problem underlying what has become today’s free trade issue. America’s deindustrialization devastated Americans. During the 1950s’ mass middle class prosperity, union men like auto workers and longshoremen worked for one company for life, earning enough to finish every month with a little left over for savings, pensions, and fun. Four decades later, in a high tech globalizing economy, “made in America” manufacturing had become too expensive, and importing foreign goods had become too cheap.
While campaigning in 1991, Governor Clinton impressed a reporter, Don Baer, by speaking frankly to workers about “having multiple jobs throughout their lives,” urging them to be nimble, learning to retool repeatedly. By 1996, Baer was a Clinton insider, watching pollsters advise President Clinton to stop addressing this challenge so frankly, because, while true, “it scared people.”
These trends have only intensified. In June 1979, there were 19.5 million manufacturing workers in America. Today, that number has dropped to 12.3 million. Yet with 37 percent fewer workers, the country produces 78 percent more products, contributing $2.17 trillion to the American economy. This shift reflects modern capitalism not free trade. According to the Commerce Department, over the last quarter-century, exports of American manufactured goods have quadrupled, with the country enjoying a trade surplus with Mexico and Canada, its NAFTA partners, especially thanks to NAFTA’s expansion of Mexico’s middle class.
In 1998, some Americans’ atavistic fear of free trade caught up with Clinton. That December, 45,000 protesters denouncing the World Trade Organization (WTO) Summit in Seattle repudiated Clintonomics from the left. Protesting against globalization in 1999 was as futile as protesting against clouds in Seattle. Still, the Seattle Battle heralded Bernie Sanders’ Democratic Party insurrection against Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party, long the bastion of free trade orthodoxy. Ironically, Donald Trump, the uber capitalist and New Gilded Age materialist, is echoing what George H.W. Bush’s former adviser James Pinkerton called “the politics of radical nostalgia.”
Unfortunately, even before the Great Crash of 2008 and the Slow Motion Recovery, globalization, deindustrialization, and the limited remuneration for McJobs, benefited Wall Street while hurting Main Street. The rich enjoyed more of the nation’s wealth. Despite Bill Clinton’s rhetoric, more Americans could not make ends meet.
In an ideal world, Hillary Clinton would confront Donald Trump’s hypocrisy on these issues. She would defend free trade and welcoming immigration policies as part of an expansive American nationalism that has long reflected America’s big heart – and helped build America’s big wallet. Rather than mocking him for manufacturing Trump products abroad, she would mischievously congratulate him for understanding the economic realities as a businessman, then condemn him for lying about his calculus to voters. Rather than echoing Trump and Sanders, she would challenge Americans to transcend their xenophobia and fear of change. Overall, she would help Americans articulate an open, confident, liberal nationalism that could pass the “Richard Stands” test, the schoolkid’s misstatement of the Pledge of Allegiance line, “for which it stands,” rebuilding a modern American consensus.
Alas, amid such an intense campaign, Hillary Clinton will probably continue what she’s been doing, giving the anti-free traders just enough validation to avoid a big fight, while hoping to retain enough wiggle room to govern the economy effectively if she wins. In that way, Donald Trump is betraying Reagan and channeling Herbert Hoover, while Clinton is channeling the wily FDR while betraying Roosevelt’s bolder bipartisan successors, including her husband.