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Trump Offered a History Lesson on Tariffs; Here’s What He Left Out

Posted March 09, 2018

Under Economic Issues, International Trade Issues


(Lily Rothman – Time)

On Thursday, in announcing new tariffs on aluminum and steel, President Donald Trump positioned himself in a long line of U.S. presidents who have embraced the idea of using those taxes on imports to shore up the American economy.

“Our greatest presidents all understood, from Washington to Lincoln to Jackson to Teddy Roosevelt, that America must have a strong, vibrant and independent manufacturing base. Has to have it,” Trump said. “President McKinley, who felt very, very strongly about this — the country was very, very successful; we actually operated out of cash flow, if you can believe it. The protective tariff policy of the Republicans, he said, has made the lives of our countrymen sweeter, and brighter and brighter and brighter. It is the best for our citizenship and our civilization, and it opens up a higher and better destiny for our people.”

Trump’s list does offer a useful history lesson: A tariff was one of the first major laws that Washington ever signed. Jackson, a favorite of Trump’s, stuck up for a tariff in 1832 even though it was so controversial that it led to the nullification crisis in South Carolina. Lincoln, whose government badly needed money due to the Civil War, once said that “the tariff is to the government what a meal is to the family”; the then-young Republican Party as it existed at the time embraced protectionism in the years after the Civil War. McKinley was known as the “Napoleon of Protection.” And, though Roosevelt’s take on tariffs was nuanced, he ran against Woodrow Wilson, who made lower tariffs a major campaign issue. (Whether the various tariffs embraced by these men helped or hurt the nation, which was a matter of debate then — case in point: the nullification crisis — remains a complicated question today.) Click here to read more.

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