The Buchananites Aren’t Going Anywhere: Trade Policy that Made America Great

pat buchanan
Pat Buchanan giving his famous "culture war" speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention (Screenshot via Youtube)

March 4, 2023

Pat Buchanan, the paleo-conservative icon and thought leader of the nationalist wing of the Republican Party, announced his retirement from his syndicated column on January 20th. 

Buchanan has, in so many ways, contributed to the national dialectic on the American right. A figure of great controversy, Buchanan has been a stalwart defender of conservative principles for decades. Often saying the unthinkable, he has never shied away from an earnest debate. 

But perhaps his single most important contribution to the modern conservative movement was his views on trade. Much to the chagrin of the neoliberal Reaganites that have dominated the ideological ethos of the Republican Party since the 1980s, Buchanan has been a passionate and vociferous proponent of tariffs and, more broadly, Hamiltonian economics. 

In his 1998 book, The Great Betrayal: How American Sovereignty and Social Justice are Being Sacrificed to the Gods of the Global Economy, Buchanan dishes out, what can only be described as, a damning and unforgiving rebuke of the free trade orthodoxy that has become characteristic of both major political parties since the FDR-era. In the book, Buchanan draws upon history to support his argument that Hamiltonian economics and trade protection, not free trade and globalism, are what made America great. He speaks fondly of Henry Clay and the old Whig party, President William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and other great American statesmen who understood the vital importance of protecting domestic industry from foreign competition. 

But Buchanan goes even further when developing his argument. In a bold and unexpected move, Buchanan defended the, now infamous, Smoot Hawley Tariff of 1930 against commonplace smears that the bill exacerbated the economic toll of the Great Depression. The Smoot Hawley Tariff, which the 21st century American electorate is probably unfamiliar with, sparked incredibly contentious debate at the time. It was, by far and away, the most egregious piece of tariff legislation in the country’s history, raising the average import duty by a ballpark of about 17%. It was, in effect, the product of Republican Party logrolling (vote-trading) and hyper-protectionist ideology that came from representatives in Northern industry-oriented communities. 

Subsequent to its passing, America entered into some of its darkest days. Hoovervilles and bread lines defined the America of the 1930s. Buchanan, though, stated that it was a “myth” that high tariffs were to blame for the economic devastation:

Hoover’s contribution to the Depression was not Smoot-Hawley. It was the crippling 1932 hike in the income tax, raising the top rate from 25 percent to 65 percent, and the bottom rate by a factor of ten, from .4 percent to 4 percent. To raise taxes in a recession is suicidal. FDR compounded the felony by raising the top rate to 79 percent! Anxious to convict Smoot-Hawley, economists have ignored the critical role that the record tax hikes of the 1930s played in keeping America mired in depression until World War II pulled us out.

Buchanan was one of the few to dare touch the unquestioned “truth” that protectionism is backward and obsolete economic policy other than, perhaps, Paul Bairoch in Economic and World History: Myths and Paradoxes, released five years prior. 

(READ MORE: An Unlikely Alliance: Biden Administration Carries The Torch of Trump-Era Trade Policy Going Into 2023)

It probably goes without saying that Buchanan’s views on trade made him a deviant in the Republican Party. Renowned political thinker and Austrian-school economist, Milton Friedman, whom Buchanan was once on good terms with, wrote a letter to him saying that he was doing “the devil’s work” by promoting the trade policies of the protectionist-era. Many other free-traders in academia have dismissed Buchanan’s claims that it was, in fact, Hamiltonian economic policy (i.e high tariffs) that made America into the world’s most formidable economic superpower. In doing so, they almost always cite the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930. 

The fact, though, that serious academics who specialize in trade policy, like Douglas Irwin of Dartmouth, pay any credence to Buchanan’s arguments says something remarkable: Buchanan’s contributions to the conversation matter. If Buchanan was some sort of loon, spouting off about a topic he knew nothing about, academics would simply ignore him. The fact of the matter, though, is that Buchanan was (and still is) a serious and remarkably well read authority on the issue of trade. What’s more, when he ran for President in 1992, millions of Americans, sometimes referred to as the “Buchanan brigade”, resonated with his passionate defense of economic nationalism. 

Why, though, does any of this matter today? In 2015 and 2016, then candidate Trump ran on a platform of unabashed economic nationalism. Discarding party orthodoxy, Trump espoused populist rhetoric that made Paul Ryan’s and Mitch McConnell’s stomachs turn. On trade, especially, Trump bucked the establishment. This was, in many ways, similar to the uproar Buchanan caused during his 1992 run against George H.W. Bush. In response to what Buchanan saw as an American-last agenda, he declared that Bush “believes in some Pax Universalis; we believe in the Old Republic. He would put America’s wealth and power at the service of some vague ‘new world order’; we put America first.” This easily could have been said by Trump himself, though perhaps not as eloquently. 

When Trump assumed office in 2017, he made good on his promise to promote a populist economic agenda by appointing Robert Lighthizer as United States Trade Representative. Lighthizer was quite unambiguous about his stance on trade: he was, in short, a Buchananite. Often alluding to the early Republican presidents of the 19th century, who were ardent protectionists, Lighthizer pushed Trump even further into a pro-tariff, economic populist direction. As I have written about previously for the Federalist, the Trump administration showed no qualms about imposing hefty tariffs on China, Canada, and a myriad of other countries. This drove the establishment crazy. 

It is clear to me, though, that there would be no Trump without Buchanan. Buchanan paved the way for other conservatives to critique trade liberalization from a right wing angle. Today, it is the Edmund Burke Foundation’s National Conservatism project that is daring to go where no Bush-era country-club-conservative would have gone before. Young intellectuals like Josh Hammer and Oren Cass are valiantly putting the GOP’s neoliberal ethos on trial. Whether or not you agree with their populist critiques, you have to admit that their efforts are commendable. NatCon has, seemingly overnight, become part of the right’s vernacular. Free trade Reaganites are, undoubtedly, having nightmares about the NatCon boogeyman. 

Again, Buchanan opened the door for this important national dialogue. His contributions to the American right’s political discourse will be greatly missed. 

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