Updated on July 30 at 9:10 a.m. ET
The Republican Party’s free-trade wing has been showing signs of life. As Donald Trump makes the case for tariffs on Chinese imports, and as U.S. agricultural producers brace themselves for the fallout from China’s retaliatory measures against soybeans and other products, a parade of congressional Republicans has been castigating the president for threatening to unravel a trade relationship that has greatly enriched the lives of millions of Americans, GOP voters very much included. After the Trump administration pledged $12 billion in emergency aid to farmers expected to be harmed by the trade war with China, conservative critics panned the measure as either all too narrow, as it excluded other affected industries, or as unacceptably dirigiste and unbefitting a government ostensibly committed to market freedom. This despite the fact that while voters skeptical of the wisdom of increased tariffs outnumber those who favor them by 49 percent to 40 percent, self-identified Republican voters are overwhelmingly in the latter camp. In an age when elected Republicans are woefully unwilling to criticize an often reckless president, it is no wonder that these free-trade dissenters have earned a modicum of respect across the political spectrum.
But why have free-trade Republican lawmakers been so vocal in denouncing the president’s protectionism when it seems to reflect the sensibilities of most Republican voters? For one, opinion varies across constituencies, and it is entirely plausible that, say, marginal voters in competitive districts are more skeptical of the wisdom of tariffs. Or it could be that free-trade Republicans are acting in accordance with their convictions, even if doing so will prove politically costly. A more cynical explanation is that while there is little free-trade enthusiasm among the Republican rank and file, there is a great deal of it among potential donors, especially those deeply invested, figuratively and literally, in the economic integration of the U.S. and Chinese economies. Standing up for soybean farmers is awfully appealing for any heartland politician, regardless of partisan affiliation. If it offers cover for catering to the interests of multinational business enterprises that are less sympathetic, so much the better.