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At Thursday’s Republican debate, Donald Trump said he would impose punishing tariffs on China. But he also said he was in favor of free trade.

Those two ideas aren’t exactly compatible.

The hard-to-follow argument came after Trump was quizzed by Fox Business Network moderator Neil Cavuto about a recent New York Times article that said he would favor punishing China with a 45% tariff for manipulating its currency among other sins.

“What I’m saying is this,” he said. “I’m saying that … if they don’t start treating us fairly and stop devaluing and let their currency rise so that our companies can compete and we don’t lose all of these millions of jobs that we’re losing, I would certainly start taxing goods that come in from China. Who the hell has to lose $505 billion a year?”

He delivered his lines with typical Trumpian gusto: he sounded gruff and tough and threatening. But he also sounded like he’s opposed to free trade, which he denied. “I’m a free trader,” he added a minute after his pro-tariff rant.

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A little economics lesson is in order here. If you are in favor of free trade, you believe two things. One, that goods and services ought to move freely over international borders. And two, that once countries begin imposing tariffs or quotas, then those trade barriers beget other trade barriers, which beget other trade barriers, and so on, until, well, trade is no longer free.

That’s why free traders are opposed to tariffs of all kinds—and here’s the really important part—even when those tariffs are designed to protect your country’s industries, or your country’s workers, or to punish other countries that are discriminating against your country’s industries. It’s like unilateral disarmament. Both sides give up the weapon.

So, if Trump is actually saying that he wants to impose tariffs in order to protect U.S. jobs or to make it easier for U.S. companies to compete, then that’s fine. But it means he’s not in favor of free trade.

Which, to be fair, is closer to how he’s explained his position in the past.

In an interview with CBS’ Scott Pelley last September, Trump said he thought the North American Free Trade Agreement was a “disaster” and that, if he were president, he would “end” it on the grounds that “[w]e’re being defrauded by all these countries.”

When Pelley asked Trump if he were in favor of free trade, which is a long-standing plank of the Republican Party’s platform—right up there with “lower taxes” and “gun rights”—Trump said he thought we needed “fair trade, not free trade.” “We need fair trade,” he said again. “It’s got to be fair.”

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Write to Haley Sweetland Edwards at

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