Fast Track and the Crisis of Conservatism

by Patrick J. Buchanan – October 2, 1997

Do you trust Bill Clinton?

That is the question both parties will answer in the vote on “fast track,” by which Congress unilaterally surrenders its right to amend any new trade deal Bill Clinton may cut.

In saying “no” to fast track, the Democratic Party has said it does not totally trust Clinton; it wants to retain the right to amend NAFTA II to protect workers. In saying “yes,” the Republican Party is saying: Whatever Bill brings home is just fine with us.

Now, this seems paradoxical, but actually, it is not.

For many modern Republicans, belief in free trade is a dogma of faith. Most Americans may say the North American Free Trade Agreement has hurt the country, yet the GOP will vote “yes” every time — out of ideological conviction.

To discover the roots of this conviction is to understand why the conservative movement is collapsing, for belief in free trade is not a conservative idea at all. Its roots are not even American. It was part of the ideological baggage of that Utopian Woodrow Wilson who made global free trade one of his “Fourteen Points,” and its great apostles were 19th century Europeans, none of whom was a conservative, most of whom were rabidly anti-nationalist.

Who were America’s great antagonists of free trade?

Well, the second bill signed into law by George Washington was the Tariff Act of 1789, crafted by Alexander Hamilton, the greatest economic nationalist of his age. It was shepherded by House Speaker James Madison, who himself imposed America’s first “protective” tariff in 1816 to defeat British dumping after the War of 1812. That tariff was sponsored by Henry Clay, father of “the American System,” and was supported by ex-Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who, in their maturity, had become protectionists. In 1816, Jefferson came close to branding free traders traitors to the republic.

Clay was the idol of Abraham Lincoln, under whom tariff rates reached 47 percent. Lincoln made the GOP the party that protected U.S. manufacturing and the high wages of American workers. In the Republican era from 1865 to 1913, growth averaged 4 percent a year, and U.S. workers became the most prosperous in all history. Under William McKinley of the McKinley Tariff, economic growth soared to 7 percent.

Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge raised tariffs to 40 percent, slashed Wilson’s income taxes and ignited the Roaring ’20s — 7 percent growth again!

Comes the retort: What about Reagan? Well, while Ronald Reagan was a free trader, his patriotism and nationalism were most visible in his persona and role as commander in chief in a Cold War that is now history. And while reciting the free-trade catechism, Reagan had the heart of an economic nationalist, unapologetically slamming import quotas on steel, machine tools and Japanese cars, and using a 50 percent tariff to save Harley-Davidson and the all-American Harley “hog.”

The Republican Party lost the White House because it lost its populist-nationalist appeal. That is the crisis of conservatism. It is trying to reconnect with Middle America and to tap into the deep springs of nationalism — with a globalist ideology of free trade that sacrifices the national interest to the “global economy.”

Americans today want their leaders to put their own country first; they want to hear again the stirring accents of an authentic patriotism and a new American nationalism.

But when they look to conservatives, they find them embracing all of Bill Clinton’s Wilsonian globaloney — from nation building in Bosnia, to extending NAFTA to Tierra del Fuego, to “constructively engaging” Christian-bashing Chinese Communists, to burbling on about “open borders,” to paying “back dues” to the United Nations, to pumping out foreign aid to foreign ingrates, to extending NATO guarantees to Turkmenistan.

Woodrow Wilson would have loved these “conservatives.” The truth is, many of today’s “conservatives” are not really conservatives at all. They are arrivistes, impostors, right-wing impersonators from the failed campaigns of Hubert Humphrey and Scoop Jackson, ideological boat people picked up at sea by the Old Right, which should have dumped them ashore at the first port of call, instead of letting them crash at the Reagan Transition Office.

Many of the think tanks and magazines that presume to speak for conservatism are fairly crawling with Great Society rejects who ridicule the traditions of America’s greatest conservatives as “protectionism” and “isolationism,” as they secretly burn their little incense sticks at the altars of FDR, Harry Truman and JFK.

As for today’s Republicans, many are utterly oblivious to who they are and where they came, but I can tell you where they’re going.