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American economic nationalism has risen in recent years, both fueling and fueled by President Donald Trump’s election.
With it has risen the view, perpetuated by Trump and many others, that protectionism has been an effective policy throughout the nation’s history—that past U.S. government restrictions on foreign competition were manifestly successful in achieving their stated policy objectives: decreased imports, increased jobs, industrial revival, opened foreign markets, and, more broadly, American economic prosperity. These purported historical “successes” have been used to justify a new round of nationalist economic proposals.
Contrary to what appears in the news and on the campaign trail, the scholarship paints a much different picture. American protectionism—even in the periods most often cited by Trump and others as “successes”—has not only imposed immense economic costs on consumers and the broader economy, but typically failed to achieve its primary policy aims and fostered political dysfunction along the way.
The United States has struggled in recent years to adapt to significant economic disruptions due to trade, automation, innovation, or changing consumer tastes.
History is replete with examples of the failure of American protectionism; unless our policymakers quickly relearn this history, we may be doomed to repeat it.