Trying to take president seriously

2016 turned out to be a year in which it was wise to take Donald Trump as a political candidate seriously but not literally, in the inspired words of syndicated columnist Salena Zito. As 2017 is on the point of vanishing, it’s worth asking whether it’s time to take Trump seriously, if not literally, as a maker of public policy.

At least that’s the approach of two heterodox policy analysts, one a persistent skeptic and the other an early Trump fan.

The skeptic is George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen, who co-hosts the blog Marginal Revolution. Like most economists, he tends to favor free trade and has not been converted by Trump’s rants and tweets.

But he sees a pattern where others see only mayhem. “The real significance of the Trump economic revolution,” he wrote in a Bloomberg column earlier this month, “is a focus on investment.” The goal of Trump and the Republicans who fashioned the tax cut package, he argues, is to “make the U.S. a new and dominant center for investment, including at the expense of other nations.”

Their deep reduction in the corporate tax rate, from the highest in the developed world to below average, obviously will incentivize both U.S.- and foreign-based firms to invest here. Trump’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and renegotiation of NAFTA, in Cowen’s view, will make less developed Asian nations and Mexico less attractive alternatives to the U.S. for investors.

Trump critics are right to say that this upends — the regnant cliche — the thrust of American policy since the years just after World War II. Then there was bipartisan agreement on encouraging free trade and foreign investment, as economist Douglas Irwin writes in “Clashing Over Commerce.” Europe was in ruins, and voters thought its revival was in our interest.

But that was 70 years ago, and economic situations seldom remain static for so long. A revived Europe has turned sluggish, while low-wage nations in Asia, Latin America and even Africa are open for investment. First Japan and then China, and now others will be moving up as competitors.

America has proved competitive at the top levels. But a country whose labor force is always going to include many low-skilled workers may have some continuing interest in incentivizing low-skilled employment. That’s not Cowen’s view or mine, but it’s apparently Trump’s. Maybe it’s not just dismissible as crazy ranting.

Something similar may be said for Trump’s foreign policy, considered as a perhaps unstable amalgam of his soberly drafted National Security Strategy and his sometimes impulsive tweets. This view was recently explicated by David P. Goldman in the Asia Times.

Trump’s view, Goldman argues, is of an America that is more competitive than cooperative, not necessarily hostile to others but not willing to rely on assertions of abstract common interests. The National Security Strategy says, “Competition does not always mean hostility, nor does it inevitably lead to conflict — although none should doubt our commitment to defend our interests.”

The National Security Strategy has a tough enough approach to Russia to disabuse all but the most dogmatic believers of the notion that Trump is Vladimir Putin’s Manchurian candidate. It is sharply critical of some actions by Xi Jinping’s China. It drops George W. Bush’s earnest promotion of democracy in the Middle East and Barack Obama’s gauzy faith that Iran will abandon its nuclear weapons program and become a normal constructive power in the region.

On the contrary, Trump sees Iran as a clear enemy and Israel as a strong friend and looks with favor on the de facto, publicly unacknowledged alliance of Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. Left on the back burner are the long-moribund Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, once considered the key to solving every regional problem.

The National Security Strategy is even more explicit in promising to “increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia and India.” This is another informal alliance, advanced intermittently by Trump’s predecessors, with the potential to cabin in China.

On Europe, the NSS reaffirms Trump’s support of NATO but also suggests that Europeans aren’t doing enough themselves to repel threats from Russia, China and, especially, Islamic extremists. But Europe seems almost a footnote — in contrast with the postwar years, when it was the central focus of the emerging bipartisan foreign policy.

Then policymakers believed it was in America’s interest to revive and subsidize Europe. Trump believes that time is over. That’s one rational response, though you and I may not agree, to how things have changed over 70 years.

Editor’s note: Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of “The Almanac of American Politics.”