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.
No chief executive should play to nativist fears and display such little appreciation for the positive role played by immigration. Yet, Trump’s proposed policies are a natural counterpoint to the “open borders” ideology which now dominates the Democratic Party, so much so that some blue-state governments assist the undocumented to procure false papers. Some California secessionists even suggest that it’s a good thing to export our native middle class in order to make room for more energetic immigrants. Similar sentiments have been expressed by neoconservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens.
Recent GOP proposals seek to replace our current family-oriented immigration policies with the skills-based approach used in Canada and Australia. Rather than import millions of poorly educated immigrants, who tend to lower wages for working-class Americans, this approach could help fill a developing shortage of skilled workers, including in the industrial sector. Ironically, most of these immigrants may well come from the labor surplus regions of Asia or the Middle East. Given the failings in our domestic education system, and the lack of entrepreneurial spirit among millennials, overseas talent may become, if anything, more critical in coming decades.
Overall, the GOP’s call for a 50 percent cut in legal immigration makes little sense. With the American birth rate falling to new lows, we can only forestall the kind of demographic collapse already evident in Japan, Taiwan, Italy and Germany by welcoming a wave of immigrants who wish to stay here long-term, raise families and contribute to the ever-shifting American culture.
A postracial national identity is needed
The rise of white nationalism, which animates parts of the Trumpian base, and ultimately led to Bannon’s departure, is disturbing in itself. But it arose, to some extent, as a reaction to President Barack Obama’s seeming indifference toward, and even contempt for, Middle America. Similarly, the upper-class rejection of national identity throughout the high-income world is, as one observer puts it, responsible, in part, for the “declining systemic cohesion of democratic states.”
This is particularly troublesome for America, where our shared national mythology remains the only real glue holding this polyglot, rampantly individualist country together. The postnational mentality of the identity-obsessed progressive left, with its speech codes and restrictive “safe spaces,” seems to be a formula likely to create not more tolerance, but instead ever more balkanization.
If progressives and traditional conservatives want to effectively challenge Trumpism, they first must produce a more robust, economically dynamic and postracial version of nationalism. If not, the uglier version associated with the president and Bannon will not only persist, but could shape our future in ways that no one can predict.
Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism (www.opportunityurbanism.org).
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