Reason

TRUMP’S TRADE WAR MADE THE PANDEMIC WORSE, AND NATIONALISM WILL SLOW THE RECOVERY

“ONE OF THE things this crisis has taught us,” Peter Navarro, a top administration economic adviser, explained from behind the podium in the White House’s briefing room, “is that we are dangerously overdependent on a global supply chain.”

It was April 2, and, after weeks of largely ignoring COVID-19 as it spread around the world and into the United States, the Trump administration was finally taking the pandemic seriously. That is to say, it was responding in much the same way as it has throughout President Donald Trump’s tenure: by finding new ways to use old laws to expand federal power—particularly power over the free exchange of goods across international borders.

As the novel coronavirus swept the globe and jammed up international supply lines, Navarro was appointed policy coordinator for the White House’s use of the Defense Production Act—a relic of the Korean War era originally intended to allow the federal government to requisition goods to supply the military in a time of crisis. Trump and Navarro have used the law to redirect portions of the economy in an effort to address civilian needs, scrambling markets in the process.

Along the way, they targeted foreign trade too. For Trump, Navarro, and the other neo-nationalists increasingly setting policy for the post-2016 Republican Party, America’s modern problems mostly stem from goods and people coming across the country’s borders. If a problem can’t be blamed on immigration, it probably will get blamed on trade. Sometimes both. And the neo-nationalists weren’t about to let the coronavirus crisis go to waste.

“If we learn anything from this crisis,” Navarro said in April, “it should be: Never again should we have to depend on the rest of the world for essential medicines and countermeasures.”

This framing sounds like simple electoral politics. The Republican Party hopes to use the pandemic as an opportunity to double down on Trump’s “get tough on China” message that helped deliver key Rust Belt states in 2016.

But it’s more than that. Protectionism is now infecting the GOP to a degree that may be difficult to excise when the Trump era ends. Leading Republican lawmakers such as Sens. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.) and Marco Rubio (R–Fla.), who have been cheerleading Trump’s misguided tariff policy for years, are already positioning the coronavirus as an excuse to use federal power to reshape global trade. Even some formerly anti-Trump conservatives have been swayed into backing a nationalist vision of an America that must stand up to China or be swallowed by it. The COVID-19 outbreak has served only to confirm their fears.

“America must never again rely on China for our medical supplies,” Rich Lowry, editor of and author of (Broadside Books), wrote in an early April op-ed for the . Two weeks later, in an op-ed, Rubio claimed that America was “largely unable to import supplies from China” because China had “monopolized those critical supply chains” for “domestic consumption and their own fight against the virus.”

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