Conservatives in Congress have roundly condemned President Trump for calling for steep across-the-board steel and aluminum tariffs. Gary Cohn has resigned as his top economic adviser, in part, it seems, because he is so appalled by the move. And I get it. Trump’s tariffs are unlikely to do much good, as any benefit to domestic steel and aluminum producers is likely to be greatly outweighed by the harm to domestic steel and aluminum consumers. Moreover, there is a risk, albeit slight, that imposing tariffs could set off a beggar-thy-neighbor trade war. What’s frustrating, though, is that there was nothing inevitable about the fact that Trump would embrace poorly-targeted tariffs—the fault lies almost entirely with conservatives who’ve refused to give an inch to the party’s rising constituencies on trade policy, despite the fact that it’s an issue with enormous symbolic resonance.
Shortly after the presidential election, Stanley Greenberg and Nancy Zdunkewicz of the Democratic polling firm Democracy Corps offered a detailed analysis of the Trump coalition and its vulnerabilities. They found that it was significantly different from the coalition that had backed Romney in 2012. Though Trump lost ground among affluent, college-educated Republicans, he managed to bring a number of less-affluent independents and ex-Democrats into the fold, who were attracted to his deviations from Republican orthodoxy on entitlement spending and, importantly, his scathing denunciations of free trade. Whereas the GOP defectors were concentrated in states that were either so reliably Republican that Trump could afford to lose them or that were already hopelessly out of reach, the GOP-skeptical Trump voters were concentrated in Rust Belt swing states, which proved fortuitous.