A New Way Forward on Trade and Immigration


President Donald Trump’s policy agenda may seem somewhat incoherent, but his underlying approach — developed, in large part, by now-departed chief strategist Steve Bannon — can be best summarized in one word: nationalism. This covers a range of issues from immigration and trade to cultural and ethnic identity, and generally the ones with the most polarizing impact on our political system.

To many progressives, nationalism is, by its very nature, a dirty word, associated with fascist, Nazi or otherwise repressive regimes throughout history, and tied to violent extremists among the “alt-right,” like the small group of truly “deplorables” that recently surfaced in Charlottesville, Va. Liberal globalists detested Trump’s Poland speech defending Western values. To them, progressive theology matters more than affiliation with political tradition. Assaults on free trade also concern tech and other corporate chieftains, whatever their impact on the American working class.

Yet, despite his consistently ill-considered rhetoric, Trump is actually about half-right on nationalism. The postindustrial, globalized economy has not worked for most Americans, as judged by their meager income growth. The West is, indeed, threatened not only by Islamic fundamentalists, but also by China, Russia, North Korea and other authoritarian states. In comparison with today’s progressives, the Roosevelts, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson would be considered rampant nationalists.

Reassessing free trade

Free trade, the fundamental economic dogma of the global corporate class and its neoliberal allies, has proven, in practice, to be far less benign than “global strategists” suggest. What works for Manhattan or San Francisco has had devastating impacts in more industrially oriented places like the Midwest and much of the South. Overall, notes a recent study from the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute, trade with China has cost an estimated 3.4 million jobs so far this century.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross points out — correctly — that many leading trading partners, like the EU and China, impose higher tariffs on incoming U.S. goods than what we impose on their exports. China, in particular, seeks to gain advantage over U.S. producers, embracing what William Galston, former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, calls “technonationalism,” under which a country seeks to extort the surrender of intellectual property in exchange for market access and cold hard cash.

In this sense, Trump’s hard-line position on trade — and his courting of foreign investors such as Toyota and Mazda — represents a justifiable throwback to the nationalist policies framed by Alexander Hamilton, which persisted until World War II. The problem here, as elsewhere, is that Trump’s pettiness and Twitter inanities allow our trading partners to divert the discussion away from the legitimate issues around international commerce.

Read the entire piece in the Orange County Register.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com. He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book is The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us. He is also author of The New Class ConflictThe City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.

Photo by Dirk Dallas, via Flickr, using CC License.