Donald Trump’s proposal to end all Muslim immigration to the United States has unleashed a justified torrent of commentary around the world. But it is his views on free trade that are more indicative of the source of his support, and the tensions he creates within the conservative movement.
Trump displays none of the conservative virtues. He is rash, inconsistent, disdainful of knowledge and policy detail, and nonchalant about making pledges which he could not, as president, possibly fulfil.
If conservatism is a temperament – a deference to tradition, or, as Edmund Burke said, to a “manly, moral, regulated liberty” – then Trump is not a conservative.
He appears to have no interest in statescraft or stability. Remember Tony Abbott’s 2013 promise to slow down the news cycle and end political dysfunction? Trump promises the opposite. And it is entirely possible that he will be voted as the nominee of the conservative Republican Party.
At the sixth Republican candidates debate last week, Trump tried to explain what he meant when he told the New York Times editorial board that he wanted to impose a 45 per cent tariff on all Chinese goods coming into the United States.
First he tried to say the New York Times reported him wrongly – which, if you listen to the audio of his meeting, is an outright lie.
Then he argued that he was, in fact, “totally open to a tariff”, because he believes China is manipulating its currency and imposing tariffs to penalise American manufacturers.
It is shameful that the Grand Old Party is so close to nominating such an empty demagogue.
It fell to Marco Rubio to explain during the debate what economists have been trying to explain for two centuries: tariffs harm consumers by raising the price of goods at home and do nothing for economic development.
The cost of any tariffs imposed by China on imports is borne by Chinese consumers. The cost of a Trump tariff would be borne by American consumers. The United States would do better to ensure that its businesses were free to grow at home rather than resent the self-harming policies of its trading partners.
That Rubio’s bog-standard defence of trade was a rare moment of rationality in the Republican debate is a sign of how the Trump phenomenon has unmoored all but the most moored candidates, chasing the resentment that this garish business mogul has tapped into. It is shameful that the Grand Old Party is so close to nominating such an empty demagogue.
Every political party is a coalition of groups, each with their own attitudes and appeal that have banded together to form government.
The Republican party has always had a populist wing that co-inhabits uneasily with the business conservatives who are more interested in free markets and small government. There is a lot of overlap in ideas between these two groups, but also much to distinguish them.
Trump is unusual as a presidential candidate because he has no interest in managing that coalition. His strategy is to appeal directly to the populist market, and ignore the business conservatives. Hence the repeated claims that his wealth means he is not beholden to party donors.
Trump represents one side of the Republican party in revolt against the other.
The numbers tell the story. A November 2015 survey found that where the rest of the field count around 35 per cent of their support from white working class voters, Trump enjoys 55 percent of this demographic. It is these voters who most believe they have lost out from industrial globalization, and feel they are suffering from competitive pressure from new migrants entering the workforce.
Regardless of whether Trump wins the nomination or flames out in the next fortnight, the significance of his candidacy for the Republican ideological coalition will be felt for decades.
So why is Trump’s position on free trade a more powerful indicator of his significance for the conservative movement than his much more radical immigration policies?
As well as the ban on Muslim immigration, Trump wants a fence on the US-Mexico border that he insists Mexico will pay for. And he wants the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States forcibly deported.
But as extreme as these positions are, the domain of Republican immigration policy had already been ceded to the demagogues before Trump came along.
If you watched the sixth debate, you would have seen Rubio back away from his role in the 2013 bipartisan immigration bill – a bill lauded at the time by business conservatives – that would have provided a way for the 11 million immigrants Trump wants to deport to become citizens.
By contrast, until Trump, the cause for free trade has at least received lip service support, despite globalisation’s role in changing the industrial landscape that many working class Republican voters have resented. No question that there are always some stark violations of the free trade principle. The Republican platform says the party “stand[s] ready to impose countervailing duties if China fails to amend its currency policies”.
But Trump goes much further, calling for “fair” trade at the same time as he describes himself a free trader – the classic protectionist pitch – and damning even the North American Free Trade Agreement as a “disaster”.
In a perceptive National Review piece, writer David French argues that Trump’s rise shows that Republican strategists have overestimated the conservatism of Republican voters. Regardless of whether Trump wins the nomination or flames out in the next fortnight, the significance of his candidacy for the Republican ideological coalition will be felt for decades.