Back in August, The New Yorker ran a less than flattering article about Donald Trump. In it, the author recounted why two middle-aged New Hampshire residents, Nancy and Charlie Merz, were supporting Trump. Both had lost jobs: Nancy, when the furniture industry “went down the tubes,” and Charlie, whose job building household electricity meters was shipped to Mexico by General Electric. Charlie now works parking cars at a hospital. The Merzes were won over to Trump after hearing him say he would work to prevent companies from shipping jobs overseas, an issue important enough to them that they were willing to overlook Trump’s flaws. Said Nancy Merz: “There are so many other things going on in this country that we’ve got to be concerned about. I’ve seen a lot of our friends lose their houses.”
I thought of the Merzes and the many other Americans like them when I read Kevin Williamson’s obnoxious diatribe against Trump supporters at National Review, “The Buchanan Boys.” In the piece, Williamson describes Trump’s supporters as “economically and socially frustrated white men who wish to be economically supported by the federal government without enduring the stigma of welfare dependency.” This is how Williamson describes anyone who wants to government to protect American manufacturing and the jobs it provides. In one sentence, Williamson manages to disparage white men, confuse being paid to do hard, physical labor with being paid to do nothing, and reveal a deep ignorance of how tariffs have worked in American history.
Government needs a source of revenue to operate. For much of American history, the principal source of revenue for the federal government was the tariff. During that period, the federal government intruded far less in the lives of Americans than it does today. Over time, opponents of the tariff succeeded in replacing it with the income tax as the principal source of revenue for the federal government. Under the income tax, the federal government has been far more intrusive than it ever was under the tariff. This is not a coincidence. Indeed, it was foreseen, by the first Republican president: “The tariff is the cheaper System. . . . By the direct-tax system the land must be literally covered with assessors and collectors going forth like swarms of Egyptian locusts. By the tariff system the whole revenue is paid by the consumer of foreign goods. . . . By this system the man who contents himself to live upon the product of his own country pays nothing at all.” (Republican politicians still quote the comparison of tax collectors to locusts, but they seldom quote Lincoln’s praise of the tariff). The tariff wasn’t welfare; it was the demise of the tariff that made welfare possible—and necessary.
But the tariff did more than provide revenue to the government. It also fostered American manufacturing and kept the wages of those who worked in manufacturing high. Preference for American manufacturers and American workers was at the heart of the tariff system. As Justin Morrill noted: “There is a transcendental philosophy of free trade, with devotees as ardent as any of those who preach the millennium. . . . Free trade abjures patriotism and boasts of cosmopolitanism. It regards the labor of our own people with no more favor than that of the barbarian on the Danube or the cooly on the Ganges.”
That many Trump supporters would agree with Morrill is what so agitates Williamson. He writes that “it is unlikely that such voters can ever be entirely assimilated into the mainstream of American conservatism, the universalism of which provides them no Them—and they want a Them, badly.” By recasting conservatism as universalism, Williamson proves Morrill’s point. “Us. vs. Them Foreigners” is one of the distinctions Williamson ridicules in his article. He sees no distinction between Americans and foreigners, between America and other countries. The nation counts for nothing, the market for everything. The problem isn’t that Trump voters want a Them; the problem is that Kevin Williamson doesn’t think there’s an Us.
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