Trump’s Mexico Tariffs And Republican ‘Profiles In Courage’

The GOP Senators standing up against the President's tariffs on Mexico are being called courageous. I'm wondering what took them so long to stand up.

As I noted yesterday, Senate Republicans are signaling the White House that they could seek to take steps to rebuke the President over his decision to impose tariffs on Mexico due to the flow of migrants to our border with Mexico. This causes Amber Phillips to note that the Senators who are doing so are taking a big political risk:

This would directly undermine Trump on his top 2020 issue: immigration. Passing such a resolution would stop Trump from being able to fund the border wall. Even if Republicans don’t agree with how he’s trying to fund the wall, supporting the wall itself remains a fundamental pillar of being a Republican in the era of Trump.

It could be tough for them to go home and explain to Trump supporters why they stopped one of the president’s top policy objectives over a more esoteric trade policy issue.

Trump is also tying these Mexican tariffs to the migrant crisis at the border. As migrants illegally enter the United States at record levels,

Trump has cast them as dangerous and ill-willed, and he’s using the threat of tariffs to force Mexico to somehow stem them.

So in opposing Trump, Republican senators risk being seen as anti-border-wall and against acting tough on migrants. It’s a politically risky move, but one that a chunk of Republican senators seem willing to make.

The first thought that comes to mind about all of this is the fact that we have seen very few signs of political courage on the part of Republicans on Capitol Hill since the start of the Trump Administration. While there have been some isolated examples of Congressman and Senators speaking out against the President, most of the real criticism of the President has come from legislators who have already announced their retirement or those, such as the late John McCain, who essentially had nothing to lose in openly opposing the President. It is the very fact that there have been so few Republicans willing to stand up against this President that makes those few examples the most noteworthy. By and large, the vast majority of the candidates have been carbon copies of the sycophants, sellouts, and cowards that make up the rest of the Republican Party. In other words, the GOP in the age of Trump has not exactly been a profile in courage.

What is ironic, and telling, about Phillips comments, which I largely agree with, is the fact that it is considered at all controversial that these Senators could face blowback for taking what, until now, had been a long-standing principle among Republicans and conservatives. While what it means to be a Republican and a conservative has changed over time, for at least the period since the end of World War II that definition has included support for free trade and open markets to international trade. This belief has been based largely on the overwhelming economic consensus, among economists on both sides, that tariffs are a bad idea that end up harming the domestic economy and American businesses. This idea held true for decades through a number of Republican Administrations.

All of that changed on a dime once Donald Trump became President. While his political affiliation has changed over the years from seemingly Democratic to Independent to Republican, Trump has always been an opponent and sharp critic of free and open trade. In the 1980s, he was among the harshest critics of what some at the time thought was a trade policy that was far too lenient toward Japan, which Trump asserted was running circles around the U.S. due to our trade policies. Thirty years later, he continues to say the same thing, except now the enemies he looks at aren’t in Japan, but in China and, bizarrely, Canada, Mexico, and Europe, nations that we used to count as among our most important allies.

Now that he’s President, Trump has turned those largely discredited and economically backward viewed into policy, and he’s brought the Republican Party along with him. The result is a party that once stood for free trade and opposition to economically destructive tariffs and trade wars now mimicking Trump’s economic nationalism notwithstanding the fact that it will only lead to economic ruin.

This is only one example, of course, of the extent to which the Republican Party has become a cult of personality with Donald Trump at its center. For Republican base voters, any criticism of the President, even by solidly conservative politicians or pundits is seen as a betrayal that cannot be forgiven. This is why Phillips is correct to say that these Senators are taking a political risk in opposing what is, at its root, an absolutely insane policy being advocated by the President, and it’s the main reason why most Republican officeholders don’t dare to speak up against the President regardless of what they may think and say about him in private. For that reason, I suppose, these Senators deserve some credit for finally speaking up against the President. One does wonder, though, what took them so long.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Donald Trump, Economics and Business, Politicians, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.


  1. Teve says:

    I thought this bit from Vox explained it pretty well:

    What makes this standoff interesting is that Trump is asking, in a small way, for a sacrifice the business wing of the GOP is never asked to make.

    Like any other political party, the modern-day Republican Party is a coalition and the interest groups behind it have different and at times clashing priorities. But Republicans typically manage to avoid outright conflicts between their major constituency groups, and even though cultural and identity concerns dominate Republican electioneering, when it comes to policy priorities, the business community always gets its way.

    This has even mostly carried through on immigration policy in the Trump era, with the president publicly voicing skepticism of the E-Verify program that would make it harder for employers to hire unauthorized workers even while universally supporting harsh measures against immigrants themselves.

    The way the deal is supposed to work is that cultural conservatives provide the votes, and they get their way on issues the business community doesn’t care about (until cultural conservatives’ views become an unpopular embarrassment the way opposition to same-sex marriages and military service is), but business isn’t supposed to actually sacrifice its interests for the sake of cultural conservative causes. With the tariff gambit on Mexico, Trump is overturning that logic in a way that his other trade shenanigans haven’t. And that’s why congressional Republicans are resisting in an unusual way.

  2. steve says:

    I guess this makes for an interesting topic, and I can understand people hoping that there might finally bee a stand on principle, but it is all for naught. Push comes to shove, ie they have to actually vote, these guys will fold. This is all much ado about nothing. There is no such thing as principle, just power.


  3. Kathy says:

    The way these Republican senators should play it, is by pointing out that Dennison is proposing a tax increase across the board and calling it a tariff.

    Unfortunately many believe El Cheeto when he says it’s other countries that pay the tariffs.

  4. gVOR08 says:

    I stand by my comment on the last thread. It takes a threat to the profits of their corporate sponsors. You really want to see some Republican courage, announce a tariff on Mexican oil.

  5. Neil J Hudelson says:

    I’ll believe that Republican Senators are willing to buck POTUS when I see it. I don’t think it makes sense, politically, for Senate GOPers to stick their necks out, for the reasons you outlined and because there won’t be a veto override in the House. It would be one thing for Senate GOPers to take a stand knowing that their counterparts have their back, but in this scenario they are going to take a stand that won’t actually stop Trump from doing the thing they are taking a stand against. It will be a futile effort, it will fail, and it will likely fuel a few primary challenges.

    Which is to say, go for it, Senate GOP. I would love another battle in the GOP civil war. I would love some Senators to have a backbone, and give me hope that our Republic might be repaired in the future. But I doubt it happens.

  6. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    The words Republicans and courage used in the same sentence. That’s funny.
    When it comes down to it…they will not buck the leader of their cult.
    Next topic.

  7. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Teve: You’ve hit on the point that Doug and Ms. Phillips are missing. The Senators from Con Agra, Archer, Daniels, Midland, and Cargill are addressing the concerns of their constituencies.

  8. Kathy says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    The words Republicans and courage used in the same sentence. That’s funny.

    Well, let’s see.

    Their parents or grandparents charged Nazi and Japanese machine guns, concrete pillboxes, faced shell and mortar fire, tangled with tanks, and liberated large swaths of Europe.

    They are cowering in fear that an overgrown man child might say something mean about them on Twitter.

    It may be an unfair comparison. After all, they didn’t have Twitter at the Battle of the Bulge.

  9. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: Yeah, and their parents and grandparents didn’t have to run for reelection either. It all adds up, you know.

  10. al Ameda says:

    I’m guessing that this is a phony little “Rob Corker/Jeff Flake” moment for these Republicans. They get to talk tough, be ‘appalled’ and it costs them nothing because Trump acts unilaterally, and these guys won’t actually have formally vote in opposition to Trump.

    It’s low grade kabuki.
    They can’t do anything about Trump right now …. and they won’t.