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Heidi Heitkamp: Republicans have abandoned free trade to support Trump's 'radical and reckless' policies

Heidi Heitkamp
Key Points
  • A key legacy of this president will be his ability to unilaterally impose tariffs (i.e. taxes on American customers) for any purpose, at any time, and without Republican opposition.
  • Today, the Republican Party is no longer the free trade party. It no longer has any credibility to tout the virtues of free trade.
  • This complacency is not limited to Republican elected officials.
President Donald Trump arrives at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

Whether it is a year and a half or five and a half years from now, eventually Donald Trump will not be president of the United States. A key legacy of this president will be his ability to unilaterally impose tariffs (i.e. taxes on American customers) for any purpose, at any time, and without Republican opposition.

Historically, the Republican Party has been a reliable and proud advocate for free trade. At the dawn of the century, the official party platform stated "Republicans are confident that the worldwide trade agenda is full of promise. Tariffs should be cut further."

Today, the Republican Party is no longer the free trade party. It has acquiesced to the radical and reckless trade policies of this administration and no longer has any credibility to tout the virtues of free trade.

That acquiescence is documented in Republican elected officials' reactions to President Trump's threatened or imposed tariffs. The response usually starts with the phrase, "I don't like tariffs but…" Then, insert whatever excuse the official finds most topical, including, "but China cheats," or "but it's worth the price," or "but we need to address the issue at the border."

Yale educated Missouri Senator Josh Hawley offered one of the most confused and twisted rationalizations when he said, "It doesn't necessarily mean you're against free trade. It just means you've got to take the long view of what free trade looks like."

Frank Markiewicz famously said, "Ignore everything a politician says before the word but." The real reason GOP members of Congress are not passing legislation to stop tariffs from being weaponized is that, when it comes to this president, they have no principles. What they are really saying is, "I don't like tariffs, but the president can do whatever he wants without criticism from me."

Today, the Republican Party is no longer the free trade party. It has acquiesced to the radical and reckless trade policies of this administration and no longer has any credibility to tout the virtues of free trade.

This complacency is not limited to Republican elected officials. A headline in a recent article published in "The Federalist" screams: "Yes, Tariffs Make Stuff More Expensive, But Sometimes It's Worth It."

There's no mention in this article of the Congressional responsibility set out in Article I Section 8 of the Constitution, only excuses for tolerating the unilateral executive imposition of tariffs.

Various business groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers have voiced concerns, but have they really leveraged their political might? If they pulled out all the stops to push for congressional intervention, would it matter?

In an event hosted by Chartwell Strategy Group, David Tamasi, the former finance chair for the Trump Victory Fund, predicted that Congress will not challenge the president on trade since there is nothing in it for House Democrats and Republicans are too concerned about reelection.

The once reliable Republican ally group, the Koch-aligned Americans for Prosperity, is the only organization that has been honestly consistent on the issue of tariffs. It has put its money where its mouth is, spending millions of dollars on advertising against tariffs. The President responded by calling the Koch Brothers "a total joke."

The lasting impact of Republican complacency will be a dramatic expansion of presidential power. The precedent is set: a president will have the unchecked power to impose taxes on the American people for any purpose, at any time.

Heidi Heitkamp, a CNBC contributor, served as the first female senator elected from North Dakota from 2013 until 2019.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

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Key Points
  • U.S. President Donald Trump and China President Xi Jinping will meet Saturday at the G-20 summit to talk trade.
  • A White House official told CNBC that it might not take much to at least reach a truce in the tit-for-tat trade war.
  • Trump is closely watching the stock market for reaction to the various developments, the official said.