As the inequity surged, political unrest rippled through the nation's interior. Populist third parties rose like Furies from the savannas of Georgia to the plains of Montana. At the Democratic National Convention of 1896, rank-and-file delegates stunned the party establishment by nominating William Jennings Bryan, a fiery Nebraskan orator who called high tariffs "the means of extortion" by which trusts established monopolies.
The moment of reckoning was still to come, however. Bryan's politics were too radical for most voters, and the Democrats were too fractured. Republicans began the 20th century with pro-tariff stalwart William McKinley in the White House and a huge majority in Congress. But cracks began to appear within the GOP as well. Midwestern insurgents protested unfair tariffs and accused the Republican establishment of corruption. When Theodore Roosevelt became president after McKinley's assassination, he stunned Republican elites by attacking the trusts. He privately wished to reduce tariffs as well but refrained for fear of splitting the party.
After Roosevelt came the flood. William Taft, his bumbling successor, promised “a genuine and honest revision of the tariff” but signed a bill that was as corrupt and inequitable as any that had come before. When he pronounced it “the best bill that the Republican party ever passed,” outrage erupted across rural America, and the Republican Party cracked. In 1910, Democrats captured the House for the first time in decades. In 1912, Roosevelt abandoned the GOP and founded a new progressive party committed to tariff reform and anti-trust regulation. Democrats took the White House and Senate that year, and Taft lost his reelection bid with 23 percent of the vote. In Oklahoma, he received fewer votes than the Socialist candidate.
In the 1920s, Republicans returned to power and resumed their protectionist agenda, but when crop prices fell, Midwesterners again turned on the party. Chastened by Taft's experience, President Herbert Hoover promised to aid farmers by raising agricultural tariffs. The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 did protect crops, but it also radically increased the duties on manufactured goods, provoking a trade war with Europe at the worst possible time. As the Great Depression spread misery across the country, voters blamed Hoover's tariff. In 1932, they elected FDR in a landslide and pummeled the GOP.
Reduced to a perennial minority, Republicans finally abandoned their protectionist doctrine and embraced free trade. The ferocious tariff debate that had dominated American politics since the nation's founding slipped into the shadows, remembered only by historians and economists.
Until Donald Trump. Quoting McKinley's paean to protectionism, Trump has enacted tariffs on hundreds of products from China, Europe, Canada, and Mexico at a scale not seen since 1930. These tariffs are only a few weeks old, yet we're already seeing the same inequities that characterized previous tariffs. Corn and wheat prices fell after China retaliated; soybeans are down 20 percent since April. Meanwhile, Trump's steel tariff is raising production costs for John Deere and Caterpillar, which will inflate the cost of farm equipment.