This does not mean that protectionists are losing. Rather, they are scorching the earth. The current debate is not really about economics or national security; it’s about identity. Trump has distilled his case for the tariffs into a simple phrase: “If you don’t have steel, you don’t have a country!” As usual, the implication is factually incorrect—the United States already produces about 70 percent of the steel it consumes. But that does not really matter. The president is evoking a bygone era when steel was a major employer in the Rust Belt. Never mind that new industries are arising all the time; at present, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center employs nine times as many people as U.S. Steel. Trump is appealing to nostalgia for a world in which factory workers have children who then go on to work in the same factory.
In taking this approach, Trump has alienated an awful lot of the country, which explains the public shift in attitudes. Americans are more enthusiastic about free trade because Democrats are reacting negatively to the president—and to his tariffs.
Much of the country views trade policy through the lens of race and identity. Temple University political scientist Alexandra Guisinger has demonstrated that support for protectionism correlates with who is being protected. Simply put, tariffs are more popular with Americans when they are thought to benefit white workers.