Trump’s Trade Tribalism

Note this column originally appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times.

US President Donald Trump is living proof that being a good politician often means being a bad economist.

To see what I mean by that just consider Trump’s protectionist position on trade.

This is a stance that drives the majority of economists crazy, since they tend to see freer international trade as a policy that helps makes the entire world a more prosperous place.

And it’s likely economists are right.

Certainly, they can support their pro-free trade stance with tons of studies and statistics and facts.

But none of that matters so much in politics, a sphere where studies and statistics and facts, are no match for emotions.

In other words, it’s emotional appeals, rather than intellectual ones, which motivate voters.

And from an emotional point of view, free trade is a policy that’s easy to attack and difficult to defend.

And that’s because protectionism, which is basically the notion that we should protect our country’s workers from foreign competition, very much appeals to the human race’s inherent tribalism.

Millions of years of evolution have so hardwired humans to be wary and suspicious of strangers from other “tribes”, that we’re naturally receptive to any argument which makes the case that trade with foreigners helps “them” and hurts “us”.

As a good politician Trump is taking advantage of this particular emotional hot button.

In his recent inaugural speech, for instance, he talked about how U.S. trade policy had “enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry” and about how “we’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.”

That’s a tribalist appeal if ever there was one.

And so is Trump’s slogan: “Buy American and hire American”.

By the way, if you simply change the “tribe”, that slogan could actually work anywhere.

I mean, if a Canadian politician were to say, “Buy Canadian and hire Canadian”, he or she would surely garner applause.

Indeed, ever since John A. Macdonald and his “National Policy,” Canadian protectionism has always had a tribalist flavor, in that trade tariffs were justified as a way to safeguard Canada’s independence from Americans.

This attitude reached its apex during the 1970s and 1980s, when Liberal governments instituted protectionist measures such as the Foreign Investment Review Agency and the National Energy Program, both of which were specifically designed to limit American economic influence in our country.

In 1988, the Liberals also used fear of Americans to justify their opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as negotiated by the then Progressive Conservative government.

Sounding an awfully lot like the Trump of today, the Liberals back then repeatedly warned that if we signed NAFTA it would transform Canada into an impoverished, exploited economic colony, lorded over by American corporations.

Then Liberal leader John Turner even dramatically accused the Conservatives of “selling Canada out with one signature of a pen.”

Of course, it’s ironic that today the Liberals, who now wholeheartedly support NAFTA, must convince a protectionist US president that freer trade with Canada is actually good thing.

And so far, the Liberal messaging strategy on this issue has been pretty good.

In a statement congratulating President Trump after his inauguration, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted: “Together, we benefit from robust trade and investment ties, and integrated economies, that support millions of Canadian and American jobs. We both want to build economies where the middle class… have a fair shot at success.”

In short, Trudeau isn’t talking like an economist, but like a politician.

His message is basically, we’re from the same tribe, so don’t shut us out.

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