Protectionism under Trump: The China Shock, Intolerance, and the “First White President”



Marcus Noland | Peterson Institute for International Economics

Following the debacle of the Smoot-Hawley tariff in the 1930s and the Great Depression that followed, a broad consensus supporting open international trade policies prevailed in American politics for three generations. The 2016 presidential campaign of Republican candidate Donald J. Trump departed from that longstanding norm by emphasizing limits on immigration and international trade as key campaign issues, along with promoting explicitly nationalist and protectionist positions. Survey data suggest that changes in the underlying attitudes of a substantial number of American voters mirrored this shift, however, and in November 2016 Trump was elected president, despite losing the popular vote (Mutz 2018).

To a significant extent, Trump has delivered on his campaign promises. During his first week in office, he pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership initiative. Subsequent renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement, through the tightening of rules of origin and the lengthening of liberalization timelines, moved those two agreements from free trade. He imposed protection in steel and aluminum via a national security case (Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962), started a trade war with China, and has threatened trade relations with other partners via a pending Section 232 case on trade in automobiles and parts.

Applied protection has skyrocketed: 15 percent of US imports, mostly from China, were covered by special protection (though some of this coverage pre-dates Trump) (Bown and Zhang 2019). If Trump were to carry through on his threat to hit the remainder of Chinese imports not currently covered, that figure would rise further. If the United States were to impose Section 232 protection on autos, another 15 percent of imports would come under special protection. In short, the administration is contemplating putting 40 percent of US imports under special protection. Several trading partners, including China and the European Union, have retaliated by imposing tariffs on 8 percent of US exports (Bown, Jung, and Lu 2018); this figure will rise if the administration makes good on its threats to impose more tariffs. Amiti, Redding, and Weinstein (2019) estimate annual real income loss of $17 billion due to protection in place at the end of 2018. This figure is likely an underestimate, however, insofar as the underlying model does not consider productivity effects (e.g., damage to value chains and productivity losses due to shifting intermediate input suppliers).

Two broad explanations have been offered for the apparent shift in voter preferences and Trump’s electoral success, one emphasizing economic anxiety and the other emphasizing white voters’ distress over status loss, both as the dominant group at home and in America’s standing abroad. Economic distress due to enhanced import competition (sometimes attributed specifically to competition from China) has been linked to voters turning to protectionism, particularly white male voters in areas with high levels of manufacturing employment (Che et al. 2016; Jensen, Quinn, Weymouth 2017; Freund and Sidhu 2017; Autor et al. 2018; Bisbee n.d.). Over the past two generations, the US economy has experienced a tremendous increase in globalization. The share of international trade in national income has risen steadily, roughly tripling from 9 percent in 1960 to 27 percent in 2017. In the United States, the expansion of trade tends to depress the wages of low-skilled workers, increase the wages of some skill classes, and may well increase the returns to capital, land, and other natural resources. It is argued that the so-called China shock of the 1990s and the granting of permanent normal trade relations status to China following its accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, together with a period of Chinese currency undervaluation, contributed to a surge in manufactured imports particularly harmful to US manufacturing employment (Autor, Dorn, and Hanson 2013).

That period of rapid increase in import penetration has passed. Hicks and Devaraj (2015), who decompose US job loss in manufacturing during the period 2000–2010 into components associated with technological change, trade, and shifts in domestic demand, find that productivity change accounted for 88 percent of the job losses. But citizens cannot vote against technological change. In this malaise, international trade policy becomes the scapegoat of those unhappy with prevailing economic trends. The United States is not alone in experiencing public dissatisfaction with trade policy, and the growing salience of immigration concerns in the United States and elsewhere suggests that the expressions of unease with international trade and immigration may reflect apprehensions that run deeper than the national income accounts.

Protectionism under Trump


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