clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Donald Trump says "I love free trade," contradicting all his prior statements on trade

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

"I love free trade," Donald Trump said at the Fox Business Republican presidential debate Tuesday night. "I'm a free trader, 100 percent!"

But judging by Trump's public record, nothing could be further from the truth. In his 2011 book, Time to Get Tough, Trump called for a 20 percent tariff on all imports:

I want foreign countries to finally start forking over cash in order to have access to our markets. So here's the deal: any foreign country shipping goods into the United States pays a 20 percent tax. If they want a piece of the American market, they're going to pay for it. No more free admission into the biggest show in town — and that especially includes China.

He literally writes that trade should not be "free." In those words. Elsewhere in the book, he calls for a 25 percent tariff on China as punishment for currency manipulation (it's unclear if this is on top of or instead of the general 20 percent tariff) and either a 15 or 20 percent tax on companies that outsource jobs — the book contradicts itself as to the rate:

The numbers. They are different numbers.

Trump 2011

In fairness, this was four years ago, and Trump's views on other taxes have changed since then. But he's also been hyping up tariffs during this campaign, specifically calling for a 35 percent tariff on imported cars in June and on October 26 — just two weeks ago.

It's certainly interesting if Trump thinks that making trade less free is a free trade-y position, and he should elaborate as to why he thinks that. But his record shows a lot of enthusiasm for protectionism, and none for trade liberalization.

You don't have to be an avid free trader to think 20 percent tariffs are ridiculous

Suffice it to say, slapping a 20 percent tariff on everything is a horrible idea. Not only would it make any imported good hugely more expensive, it would be a clear, aggressive violation of the US's duties as a member of the World Trade Organization. The WTO would likely rule the tariff an unfair trade practice and allow for retaliatory tariffs from other countries as punishment. That would hurt US exports, reducing or eliminating any gains to domestic industry due to lowered foreign competition. It'd make workers in export-reliant developing countries worse off and deny them alternatives to subsistence agriculture. And in the US, it'd mainly fall on poor people, who consume more of their income than the rich and so bear the burden of sales taxes (including sales taxes limited only to imported goods) more severely. It's a lose-lose-lose proposition.

Trump's proposed outsourcing tax actually has some bipartisan support — not that this makes it any more viable. In 2010, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) proposed taxing companies that outsource call center jobs. These kinds of plans would likely be struck down by the WTO as unfair trade barriers, and even if they weren't, they wouldn't do much of anything to bring jobs back to the US. That ship has sailed; not even people who believe US trade policy contributed to the decline of manufacturing don't think those jobs will return should we start fighting outsourcing aggressively. Like the tariff, the policy would mostly serve to hamper growth and increase prices, with low-income consumers paying much of the burden.