In finest hour, Trump stands for Pittsburgh

President Donald Trump’s affirmation last week that he will indeed attempt to place U.S. workers and industry first and that he does, in fact, believe in trade protection for American workers and their jobs, has caused near apoplexy within New York-Washington commentariat.

We are told that tariffs would set off a trade war we would lose; that tariffs will destroy, not protect, American jobs (150,000 would be lost); and that tariffs will crash the current American economic boom.

All this is nonsense. Tariffs have been advocated for years by a wide spectrum of politicians, from Chuck Schumer, to Bernie Sanders, to Paul Ryan and fellow Republicans in their “Better Way” agenda. They have been often employed. Indeed, American pharmaceuticals are protected by U.S. trade law and agreements.

Tariffs have long been a part of the political equation, almost since the beginning of our nation. To pretend that they are suddenly beyond the pale and that only the economically ignorant would favor them is disingenuous in the extreme.

The proposition before us is not whether the U.S. should launch a trade war, but whether the U.S. ought to defend itself in trade as it would in the case of military aggression. Fair trade, and roughly parity in trade, is not a retreat from the global economy. It is an insistence that when another player engages in foul or unfair play, we will respond.

Why should Americans pay a much higher tariff on a British or German car than a Brit or German pays on Ford, for example? How is insistence on reciprocity an act of war?

In the case of steel, the Chinese government has been subsidizing the overproduction of steel, and then flooding the world, particularly the U.S. market, for years. It has been doing so for no other purpose than to put American steel makers — and, thus, workers in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana — out of business. That is the act of aggression. The trade war did not start here.

Now, what kind of tariffs, and under what circumstances, and with what concessions they might be negotiated, is a different question. That is the question to be debated now.

But Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, speaks to this point with some clarity: First, it is important to act — to do something about other nations destroying our jobs. We can refine the policy as we move forward.

Second, during the last year, while the president’s own aides tried to dissuade him from following his own instincts and promises, the Chinese have actually increased their “dumping” of steel. Sen. Bob Casey, the Pennsylvania Democrat, joined in with clear support for the tariffs: “I have repeatedly called on this and previous administrations to aggressively enforce our trade laws.”

We still do not know what the precise nature of the Trump tariffs will be. But this is no time to go wobbly. The president must stick to his guns on steel tariffs.

The president was elected to defend American workers. He ran on this issue. It would be ludicrous if he reneged on his promise to act decisively on trade. Mr. Trump understands that, if Paul Ryan does not.

The politics of Trump tariffs is irrefutable. So is the morality. For many, in eastern Ohio and in western Pennsylvania, the announcement by the president that he would fight to protect, and to help reinvent, the steel industry, was a vindication — a belated and bittersweet one, but a glorious one.

America, and the United States government, abandoned the steel industry 30-odd years ago. And what happened? Human devastation followed economic devastation — poverty, alcoholism, depression, even suicide. Lives were destroyed.

“Free trade” brought a choice for many working people — either a life of poverty and broken dreams or dislocation. That is a desperate choice to have to make. In both ways, lives were lost.

Will some targeted tariffs bring steel back to what it once was? They will not. Nor will they change the fundamental nature of the global economy. Fords are made in Mexico these days. Subarus are made in Indiana.

But if we change the incentive systems we already know, new Ford plants can be built in America and Jeeps can be sold in Europe.

The idea is to tip the incentives, just a little, toward American workers. That was the doctrine of Walter Reuther and I.W. Abel, long before it was articulated by Mr. Trump.

Last week, a president stood up for Pittsburgh, and for the Mon Valley, and Weirton, and Youngstown, and all the small American towns that felt the ripple effect of unfettered trade and abandonment of a primary American industry.

It was Donald Trump’s finest hour.


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