America’s Tariff Men: Connecting McKinley to Trump

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While the new laws were unpopular enough to unseat incumbents, Mr. Merry said, they contained a seed of McKinley’s tariff evolution. As the United States was beginning to export more goods, he was becoming a believer in trade reciprocity.

“Reciprocity was the idea that we believe in high tariffs, but we also see that America is becoming this machine of productivity, both farm goods and industrial goods,” Mr. Merry said. “He came around because he began to see the merit and the need in America becoming a trading nation.”

By the time he was sworn in as president in 1897, after a turn as governor of Ohio, McKinley’s trade views were starting to shift, and they were reflected in another trade law that year.

“There was a reciprocity element to the 1890 bill, but it never got much attention and he insisted it be in the 1897 bill,” Mr. Merry said. McKinley was becoming an advocate of lowering trade barriers through reciprocal agreements. Both the 1890 and 1897 bills imposed high tariffs, but Mr. Merry said the later version left more room to negotiate more favorable terms with other countries.

“It had mixed success, but McKinley became very devoted to the idea,” Mr. Merry said. “In Buffalo, N.Y., the same visit where he was assassinated, his one major speech at the Pan-American Exposition was to tout the idea of trade, of reducing tariffs, to do it through reciprocity and fostering America as a trading nation.”

In that final speech, McKinley revealed how starkly his views had changed.

“Commercial wars are unprofitable,” he said. “A policy of good will and friendly trade relations will prevent reprisals.”

“I think the key to understanding this is understanding Bob Lighthizer,” Mr. Merry said, referring to Robert E. Lighthizer, the United States trade representative. “Lighthizer has crafted this view, and Trump has apparently had this view going back years, that we need to develop a kind of reciprocity,” which goes right back to McKinley.

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