Opinion writer

The sight of White House senior economic adviser Larry Kudlow carrying the president’s water on tariffs and welfare for farmers should have depressed anyone who knew him as an indefatigable champion of free trade and fiscal conservatism more generally. On CNN, Kudlow had this exchange:

JAKE TAPPER: The Office of Management and Budget just came out with a projection that the — projection that the budget deficit will reach $1 trillion in 2019. That’s $101 billion more than had been previously projected. …

KUDLOW: Yes. Yes, of course. Look, the effects of this economic growth boom are going to be a major, important factor to this, very important.

TAPPER: Right now, it’s raising the deficit, though.

TAPPER: Right now, the tax cuts are raising the deficits.

KUDLOW: Sometimes, in the short run, you know, in order to invest in the economy, lower tax rates do yield lower revenues. I reckon it will take us a year, maybe 18 months to start turning that around. It’s not unusual. I look at it as a good investment in America’s future prosperity and healthy economy.

TAPPER: So, ultimately, you think it will be deficit-neutral, if not reducing the deficit?

KUDLOW: Some of the numbers I have seen — heaven forbid, even the [Congressional Budget Office], they’re suggesting we have already paid for two-thirds of the corporate tax cut. I think that, by the end of this fiscal year, that — I’m sorry — fiscal year ’19, the corporate tax cut will be paid for. By 2020, it will be more than paid for.

For starters, the administration said tax cuts would be paid for, period. There is no credible analysis showing that this is true. Kudlow’s indifference to debt — and to economic data — emphasizes the degree to which the administration’s defenders now go to defend policy they found indefensible under Democratic presidents. But even worse was Kudlow’s excuse-mongering for protectionism:

TAPPER: Let’s talk about — let’s talk about trade. Before you became the president’s economic adviser, you wrote in an essay — quote — “Tariff hikes are really tax hikes.” The president this week tweeted in part — quote — “Tariffs are the greatest.”

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: As a philosophical discussion, are tariffs great?

KUDLOW: You know, if they’re targeted for good purpose, as per China, I think the answer is absolutely yes. That’s always been my view. Most free traders agree. China has not played by the rules, and the trading system is broken, largely because of them. Now, I hope we get to our E.U. trade deal. Let me say this. The president has adopted a view with which I completely agree. He’s a free trader. And he wants to have no tariffs.

TAPPER: No tariffs at all.

KUDLOW: And no — no non-tariff barriers and no subsidies.  Now, that’s a goal, but I think that was part of our E.U. discussion. That’s his view in general. That is also my view.

Kudlow surely doesn’t believe that Trump is a free-trader, but then again, Kudlow sounds an awful less like a free-trader than he was in the past. (“So, I think he’s gaining — this is a tough, hard thing to do. You know, people say, well, President Trump’s tariffs are damaging this, that and the other thing. I say, don’t blame President Trump. He inherited a completely broken world trading system, including a World Trade Organization, most particularly China, but not only China.” Good grief.) When pressed, Kudlow had to admit that there was no real deal with the European Union, although he insisted that agriculture would be included, something that the Europeans deny is under discussion.

Kudlow is emblematic of the slew of Republicans who, now that Trump is in office, make excuses for huge debt, tariffs and restrictionist immigration policies. Republicans in Congress either issue empty criticism (not followed by legislative response) or seek to rationalize, ignore or fudge facts. Trump (as on foreign policy, law enforcement and democracy) compels his base, allies and right-wing media to twist themselves into pretzels so as not to break with him.

While the Koch empire voices its displeasure, so far it hasn’t done anything in response (such as withhold money or support Democrats). The Post reports:

Top officials with the donor network affiliated with billionaire industrialist Charles Koch this weekend sought to distance the network from the Republican Party and President Trump, citing tariff and immigration policies and “divisive” rhetoric out of Washington.

At a gathering of hundreds of donors at the Broadmoor resort here, officials reiterated their plans to spend as much as $400 million on policy issues and political campaigns during the 2018 cycle. Earlier this year, they announced heavy spending on helping Republicans hold the Senate. But in a warning shot to Trump and the GOP, network co-chair Brian Hooks lamented “tremendous lack of leadership” in Trump’s Washington and the “deterioration of the core institutions of society.”

He called out the White House and Trump-allied GOP lawmakers, particularly over trade policy and increased federal spending, and added that “the divisiveness of this White House is causing long-term damage.”

Hoping that words alone will prompt the president and Congress to snap out of their anti-free-market trance is foolishness in a hoop skirt. Merely expressing sympathy for the victims of Trump’s monstrous “zero-tolerance” immigration policy (“We’ve been very vocal in our opposition to that, it’s one of the main injustices we’re trying to work really hard to unite people around and ultimately to drive the administration to change their policy there”) isn’t going to accomplish anything. So long as the lion’s share of Koch money goes to GOP lawmakers, who comprise a Trumpized GOP majority, to support a Trump agenda, Koch’s free-market principles are going to get pummeled.

Here’s an idea: Stop supporting a GOP majority in the House and Senate and a GOP president who in no way, shape or form defend free trade, fiscal responsibility, and robust and humane immigration policy. Go cold turkey. Don’t give a dime more. Koch could support Democrats who are at this point more sympathetic to such principles or could use the enormous resources and infrastructure built up over the years to support independent candidates and/or a new party backing a responsible center-right agenda. Unless Koch starves the Trumpized GOP beast, Koch can kiss free-market principles goodbye.

Read more: 

Megan McArdle: How free-traders blew it

Marc A. Thiessen: Trump is using tariffs to advance a radical free-trade agenda

Robert J. Samuelson: What comes after the trade war?

Robert J. Samuelson: Trump gets schooled on trade

David Ignatius: Trump’s tariffs give Democrats a big opportunity