On Thursday, in announcing new tariffs on aluminum and steel, President Donald Trump positioned himself in a long line of U.S. presidents who have embraced the idea of using those taxes on imports to shore up the American economy.
“Our greatest presidents all understood, from Washington to Lincoln to Jackson to Teddy Roosevelt, that America must have a strong, vibrant and independent manufacturing base. Has to have it,” Trump said. “President McKinley, who felt very, very strongly about this — the country was very, very successful; we actually operated out of cash flow, if you can believe it. The protective tariff policy of the Republicans, he said, has made the lives of our countrymen sweeter, and brighter and brighter and brighter. It is the best for our citizenship and our civilization, and it opens up a higher and better destiny for our people.”
Trump’s list does offer a useful history lesson: A tariff was one of the first major laws that Washington ever signed. Jackson, a favorite of Trump’s, stuck up for a tariff in 1832 even though it was so controversial that it led to the nullification crisis in South Carolina. Lincoln, whose government badly needed money due to the Civil War, once said that “the tariff is to the government what a meal is to the family”; the then-young Republican Party as it existed at the time embraced protectionism in the years after the Civil War. McKinley was known as the “Napoleon of Protection.” And, though Roosevelt’s take on tariffs was nuanced, he ran against Woodrow Wilson, who made lower tariffs a major campaign issue. (Whether the various tariffs embraced by these men helped or hurt the nation, which was a matter of debate then — case in point: the nullification crisis — remains a complicated question today.)
But, as TIME reported back in 2016, when Trump touted tariffs on the campaign trail, it’s no coincidence that the the presidents whom Trump listed didn’t serve in his position very recently. Roosevelt, the most recent in that list, ended his term in 1909.
Here’s how we explained why tariffs generally went out of fashion about a century ago:
It was after the economy suffered in the wake of that tariff that, in 1934, in an effort to help President Franklin Roosevelt repair the damage quickly, Congress gave the President a power that it had constitutionally been reserved for the legislature: the power to set tariffs. Though the laws have evolved in the decades since, it was a version of that power that Trump drew on this week, adding himself to the history of presidents and protectionism.
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