David Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic, a former speechwriter for president George W. Bush and the author of several books, including Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic and Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy, which was published this month.
When I started work on the book that came to be called Trumpocalypse, the apocalypse I had in mind was a largely metaphorical one.
A very unmetaphorical one arrived instead: pandemic, global recession – all of it worse in the United States than in any peer country. As I write, the U.S. has suffered 100,000 confirmed deaths owing to the novel coronavirus. The true count of excess mortality is surely much higher.
The disease has pushed the country into the steepest economic decline in recorded history: more than 40 million jobs lost between mid-March and late May.
U.S. President Donald Trump aims to ignite an early and rapid economic recovery by pressing all the states to end their stay-at-home orders immediately. Other advanced countries that first crushed the virus reopened gradually. Mr. Trump’s urgent election timetable (only five job reports before Nov. 3!) does not allow him to move so cautiously.
Incumbent presidents can survive surprisingly high levels of unemployment. Barack Obama won re-election despite an unemployment rate of 7.7 per cent; Ronald Reagan won a landslide in 1984 despite a rate of 7.2 per cent.
But both Mr. Obama and Mr. Reagan had presided over substantial improvement in the year before re-election. The number of working Americans increased by two million in the year before the 2012 election and by more than four million in the year before the 1984 election.
By contrast, with six months to go before the 2020 election, joblessness continues to worsen. In the week ending May 22, 2.4 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits. That figure was way less grim than the weekly figures in late March and April. Yet 2.4 million jobs lost in a week is still more than three times worse than the worst week of job losses during the financial crisis of 2008-09. Perhaps the U.S. job market will touch bottom in June or July. How much can it possibly recover in the remaining time before voting day?
Mr. Trump’s politics of grievance, resentment and prejudice remain potent – but not potent enough to overcome Great Depression-like joblessness. The post-Trump era is coming into view. What do we see?
One of Mr. Trump’s most dangerous legacies looks likely to number among his most enduring: economic nationalism.
Over his many decades in the public eye, Mr. Trump has taken almost every side of almost every issue. He has been pro-life and pro-choice. He supported the Iraq War before he opposed it. He favoured immigration before he condemned it. He has been a Democrat, an independent and a Republican. On one issue, however, he has shown perfect consistency since the 1980s: his belief that international trade is a rip-off that victimizes the U.S.
In these months of pandemic, that distrust of trade remains his fierce message.
At the White House on May 15, Mr. Trump vowed: “These vaccines … that we’re going to be focused on and manufacturing, they’re all going to be [made] right here in the U.S.A.”
The vaccines do not exist yet. But the turn to economic nationalism in the name of health security? That’s real. That’s infectious. And that, too, is virulent.
In a January, 2020, interview, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross invoked the then-emerging coronavirus to pressure U.S. companies to pull investment out of China. “I think it will help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America,” Mr. Ross said. At that point, he was likely thinking of the virus as a risk that would be confined to China. As the virus reached the U.S. – and did more damage than it did in China – the Trump administration began invoking it as a reason to raise even higher the trade barriers it had imposed over the previous three years.
Before the pandemic struck, the global market for medicine looked like many other global markets. Low-tech items such as latex surgical gloves were often manufactured cheaply in China and other lower-wage countries, then exported to the U.S., the European Union and other wealthier economies. Meanwhile, knowledge-intense items such as pharmaceuticals moved along complex international supply chains that might culminate in a factory in New Jersey or Quebec or Ireland. (In 2019, Ireland exported almost €50-billion of pharmaceuticals and other medical supplies, more than China and India combined.)
And before the pandemic struck, Mr. Trump had already targeted these global markets for disruption. In 2018 and 2019, he imposed an escalating series of punitive tariffs on Chinese-made personal protective equipment. The round of tariffs applied on Sept. 1 last year bit especially hard – one reason the U.S. was caught short this spring. Mr. Trump has also repeatedly spoken about pressuring U.S. companies to relocate tablet-manufacturing operations from Ireland.
The pandemic has bestowed new political respectability on Mr. Trump’s protectionist impulses. The President’s moves to embargo the export of U.S. equipment to partner countries – including Canada – provoked surprisingly little political disagreement in the United States. After all, at the time, other countries were doing similar things. Taiwan banned mask exports at the end of January. Britain forbade the export of 80 medicines. Germany and France embargoed their fellow EU member states.
Governments are now following their restrictions on medical exports with talk of restrictions on medical imports.
"This crisis has revealed our morbid dependency on China and India as regards pharmaceuticals,” a vice-president of the European Commission said on Czech television in April. “This is something that makes us vulnerable, and we have to make a radical change there.”
Back in 2018, Senator Elizabeth Warren proposed that the U.S. government actually go into the drug-making business itself, either directly or by licensing favoured manufacturers. That idea seemed offbeat then, but the Trump White House is now debating an executive order that would require all federal medical purchasing to meet “Made in the USA” rules.
The new medical nationalism is promoted as an emergency measure, a vital protection of health and safety.
But the new medical nationalism looks likely to endure after the emergency. World trade has been faltering for a decade. Between 1990 and 2008, world trade grew faster than total world output. Since 2008, world trade has lagged world output. As the joke went, globalization had yielded to “slow-balization.”
Instead of agreements to broaden trade, the major countries have tended to turn inward. The British exit from the European Union split the world’s largest single market. The U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement promoted by Mr. Trump differs from the previous North American free-trade agreement most notably in the barriers it raises to components from further away. Mr. Trump quit the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the first week of his presidency, breaking the hinge of that ambitious project for trade expansion. A plan for a grand trade agreement linking the U.S. to the EU – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – has withered away.
The prospective barriers to trade in the name of health security will not be easy to confine. What, after all, exactly counts as “medical” or “health-related"?
As economist Henry George warned in Protection or Free Trade, his classic 1886 book, protectionism is infectious: “[T]o introduce a tariff bill into a congress or parliament is like throwing a banana into a cage of monkeys. No sooner is it proposed to protect one industry than all the industries that are capable of protection begin to screech and scramble for it. They are, in fact, forced to do so, for to be left out of the encouraged ring is necessarily to be discouraged. The result is, as we see in the United States, that they all get protected, some more and some less, according to the money they can spend and the political influence they can exert.”
The Financial Times editorialized on April 4 about the world after the pandemic: “Radical reforms – reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades – will need to be put on the table. Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy.”
The anonymous author of those words is already seeing this prediction come true. The world is indeed reversing course. We are living through an unravelling of global connections: fewer passenger flights, fewer containers on fewer ships, fewer exports and fewer imports. As trust in U.S. leadership collapses, heads of government communicate less and co-operate less. This pandemic was characterized by narrow, parochial and often selfish national responses. Chinese secrecy mania thwarted the early work of the World Health Organization. EU governments closed their frontiers to fellow Europeans without warning or consultation. U.S. leadership went utterly missing in action.
If we are not careful, the pandemic could become a decisive turning point away from the path toward trade, prosperity and peace – and toward a future of economic stagnation and worsening international conflict.
To choose wisely, leaders should learn from the errors of the recent past. The most important of those errors was to bundle together every kind of global connection into a single thing labelled “globalization.”
NAFTA was “globalization,” and so was the mass migration from the Middle East and North Africa into Europe. High-speed internet access was “globalization,” and so was the surge of housing prices in London, Miami and Vancouver. Somali pirates attacking oil tankers off the Horn of Africa? Globalization. Ditto the concentration of more and more of the world’s manufacturing on the southeast coast of China.
All these different things tended to be spoken of not only as one thing, but as one inevitable and irresistible thing. Voters could no more halt globalization, it was insisted, than they could turn the tides of the ocean or prevent the shifting of the continental plates. The only choice was to adapt. The only question: How?
Democratic electorates do not like being told they are helpless. They especially do not like it when the claim is false. There are always choices to be made, and if voters are not offered good choices, they may hazard bad choices. Over the past decade, voters across the advanced world have been opting in ever greater numbers for parties of economic nationalism and ethnic chauvinism. The pandemic could correct that trend – or accelerate it.
Those who want to correct it should begin by rethinking “globalization” not as one thing but as many things – some valuable, some less so. Each of those things, even the most valuable, comes attended by costs. So each of those things needs a strategy to manage and contain its costs.
Back in the optimistic 1990s, proponents of globalization hailed the benefits that would come from the instant free flow of internet information across national frontiers. Censorship would be overwhelmed. The truth would come to our computer screens – and the truth would set us free.
Who could have imagined that one consequence of the advent of the internet would be the return of measles and other preventable diseases because of the spread of anti-vaccination misinformation?
The new information economy is dominated by companies that do not believe they bear responsibility for the information they provide – as if back in 1970 McDonald’s had said, “Sorry, meat inspection was fine back in the days of the mom and pop diner. But we’re selling tens of millions of hamburgers a day! Our business model simply does not permit us to inspect each and every burger for worms.”
Who could have imagined that the same opening to investment capital that brought growth and development to Pacific Rim countries in the 1980s would open the most developed countries of the West to hundreds of billions in dark and dirty flight capital from Russia and China?
To save the world trading system – to keep borders open to honest international investment – we have to learn to think and talk more specifically about problems and solutions.
We will have to think and talk about the movement of people as a different thing from the movement of goods and capital.
In the 25 years after 1990, some 44 million people left homes in the global South for destinations in the U.S., Europe, Canada, Australia and other wealthy countries.
Never have people moved on such a scale – and it’s not a coincidence that the immigration has almost everywhere pushed politics in the receiving countries toward extremism.
If we seek to preserve democratic stability – if we hope to keep borders open to commerce and travel – that pace of international migration will have to slow in the 25 years ahead.
We will have to recognize that much of the capital on the move in the modern world originates in countries such as Russia, China, Nigeria and other countries not governed by the rule of law – and that if this capital is not carefully inspected on its way into Europe and North America, it will corrupt the destination country, too.
Governments must insist on knowing who owns what within their borders – and people who run for office in democratic countries must never again be allowed to get away with the concealment practised by Mr. Trump.
We will have to learn that it’s a much more daunting challenge to impose trade rules on a giant non-democratic state such as China in the 2020s than on small democratizing states such as South Korea or Taiwan in the 1980s. And we will have to accept that the U.S. acting alone is no longer powerful enough to enforce rules on China – that the U.S. can only constrain China by acting in partnership with all the other market-minded democracies.
Similarly, we should absorb from this pandemic experience that while the World Health Organization can do a good job when a disease originates in an aid-dependent country such as Guinea or Liberia (as happened with the Ebola outbreak in 2014), the UN agency just lacks the independence and clout to force transparency on China.
As you scroll through the to-do list, it quickly becomes apparent that all these items require more international co-operation, not less. America First – or Britain First or Japan First or Canada First – means America alone, Britain alone, Japan alone, Canada alone. And alone, none of these countries – not even the U.S. – has the power to shape the world as it once did.
The insight behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership – the broad trade agreement negotiated by the Obama administration – was that the U.S. plus Japan plus Australia plus Canada plus emerging trading countries such as Malaysia, Mexico and Vietnam, reinforced potentially by non-Pacific powers such as India and possibly the European Union, could together exert sufficient gravity to alter Chinese behaviour.
If they could do it for trade, they might be able to do it for investment. If they could do it for investment, they might be able to do it for pandemic preparedness and environmental protection.
But all those good outcomes depend upon political choice. If we're to save a world of peaceful trade and open investment, we have to choose right.
We can write new trade deals that better protect the environment first – then invite China to join or not later.
We can prosper through open trade while protecting political stability by limiting immigration.
We can obtain most of the benefits of open investment while better policing international money flows for corruption and tax evasion.
We can safeguard Western democratic values only if we are realistic about the relative economic power of Western democratic countries.
To restore the best of the world is going to require not only renewed U.S. leadership but a new kind of U.S. leadership – leadership much more explicitly based upon consent and consensus.
The America First experiment ended in catastrophe. The other slogan left over from 2016, “Stronger together,” remains to be tried.
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