On the Second Night of the Republican Convention, Trade is a Topic

By Matthew McMullan
Aug 25 2020 |
President Trump holds a naturalization ceremony at the White House as part of the programming for the virtual Republican National Convention.

A mayor from the Minnesota Iron Range brings up the Section 232 steel tariffs.

The speaker lineup for the second night of the Republican National Convention was long.

This is not the complete list, but it included the attorney general of Kentucky, Billy Graham’s granddaughter, two more of President Trump’s adult children, the vice president of the Navajo Nation, First Lady Melania Trump, and Pam Bondi. But that's not all: The president held a naturalization ceremony and pardoned a felon. I think I remember the Fan Man parachuting in. And another speaker got the hook for tweeting an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. You gotta hand it to him, folks: Donald Trump knows what makes for good TV.

The theme of his convention this evening was “the land of opportunity,” meant to showcase what the president was expected to hang his re-election bid on: his management of the economy. The domestic economy had been doing pretty well before the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and resulting slowdown pushed unemployment above 10 percent, but no matter: The Republicans brought out lots of people to credit Trump for his management during the latter part of its years-long upswing.

This included usual suspects like White House adviser Larry Kudlow, who pointed to recent indicators of economic recovery and predicted “a V-shaped recovery.”  

But it also included others from out there in the country who are pretty happy with the Trump administration’s economic performance. There was a lobsterman from Maine, a dairy farmer from Wisconsin, and another Wisconsinite who owns a metal fabricating business. He credited Trump for cutting business taxes and rolling back banking regulations signed by President Obama in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. He also praised the administration’s renegotiation of NAFTA – the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which passed Congress because the House Democrats got behind it.

The speaker who really caught my eye, though, was Eveleth, Minnesota Mayor Bob Vlaisavljevich, who said the case for Trump’s reelection, among other things, comes from his trade policies that have allowed the beset local economy on Minnesota’s Iron Range to rebound. The Iron Range is home to a number of taconite mines that produce a key ingredient necessary for steelmaking. That makes the mines in northern Minnesota a key part of the American steel industry and its supply chain.

The trade policies the mayor referred to are the Section 232 steel tariffs the Trump administration raised in 2018. The Alliance for American Manufacturing supports those tariffs, and believes they should be maintained as part of any COVID-19 economic relief package.

“This is hard for me to say because I am a lifelong Democrat," Vlaisavljevich said, "but for far too long leaders members of both parties allowed our country to be ripped off by our trading partners, especially China, who dumped steel into our markets and slapped tariffs on our products.”

Now, it’s hard to weigh how much certain policy decisions will alter votes across the country, let alone predict election outcomes in a year as tumultuous as 2020. But how the presidential vote goes in Minnesota’s eighth congressional district will be interesting to watch. In 2008 and 2012 it was won by President Obama; in 2016 by President Trump. In 2018 it sent a Republican to Congress for only the second time in a few decades, but also helped elect a progressive Democrat to be the state’s attorney general.  

Mayor Vlaisavljevich appeared in a New York Times story that year that looked at the shifting politics of the Iron Range. The Times wrote:

Many in northern Minnesota still speak fondly about the Democrats in their own congressional delegation, and plenty have criticisms of the president’s Twitter habit and of Republican attitudes toward labor unions. But there is a broad sense that Mr. Trump has taken up the region’s cause right as the national Democratic Party is frustrating them with environmental regulations they see as unduly burdensome to miners and with calls for stricter limits on guns.

Trump's election at least partially rearranged the traditional party loyalties when it comes to trade politics. Watching the vote in a place like northern Minnesota may illustrate if he's able to do so again in 2020.

“It’s really strange. A billionaire from New York is saving us,” Mayor Vlaisavljevich said to the newspaper at the time. Strange indeed: Not too long ago that billionaire was selling steaks. Now he's the president who once called Bette Midler a "washed up psycho" while on a state visit to the United Kingdom. The same guy!

Anyway, we’ll be back tomorrow night for more coverage of the Republican National Convention television show.