This is an extraordinary statement from an organization that was a major booster and beneficiary of the Trump administration’s focus on manufacturing. In fact, the NAM helped craft the bills that brought tax cuts, regulatory relief and incentives for manufacturing investment.
But there were tensions between NAM and the Trump administration, which previously prompted Timmons to release statements against the administration’s draconian immigration policies, handling of the pandemic and trade war with China. Timmons was critical of the moral failings of such policies, but he was also concerned about the detrimental effects such policies had on the economy and America’s standing in the world. NAM, which is a trade association and lobbyist for the manufacturing sector, had once before in its history confronted a hyper-nationalist, protectionist, conspiracy-theory-addled faction of the Republican Party that threatened to derail business’s credibility and U.S. standing in the world. Today’s NAM can draw some lessons from this episode.
Founded in 1895 to protect and coordinate the interests of American manufacturers, NAM fought unions, defended tariffs and opposed government regulations, even as it also supported trade expansion and industrial innovation. At its height in the 1950s, it had 22,000 member companies, ranging from small candymakers to large multinationals like General Electric and IBM. Manufacturing made up over 25 percent of gross domestic product then and 36 percent of the private sector workforce was in a union. NAM was the voice of industry and staunchly Republican. It made headlines regularly as it excoriated union leaders like Walter Reuther and George Meany, its mortal enemies in the once-followed drama between capital and labor. Its members delighted in NAM’s strident anti-unionism and loud opposition to New Deal “socialism” — that was why they had joined.
In 1958, NAM official and candy company executive Robert Welch founded the John Birch Society, a far-right organization dedicated to sniffing out and eradicating communism from American life. It wasn’t just communism; Birchers also targeted civil rights activists, the United Nations, the income tax, NATO and reciprocal trade treaties, all of which the society associated with a vast communist conspiracy. Three other well-connected NAM leaders were founding members, well positioned to raise funds and recruit for the new organization, which would grow to 500 chapters by 1962.
The mainstream press and the Republican Party were quick to dismiss the Birchers as a fringe group of extremists and haters, especially after it was discovered that Welch was accusing President Dwight Eisenhower of being a communist agent. Fortune magazine called the group “bizarre.” Even the hard line anti-communist William F. Buckley thought JBS was too extreme to be part of the conservative movement.
A growing number of NAM Board members and executives from large multinational corporations agreed. They worried about the Birchers in their midst, who were after all esteemed members of NAM’s executive committee, CEOs of large and successful companies, former NAM presidents. What did it say about NAM to have these zealots so dominant in the organization?
In 1960, the NAM board adopted a statement declaring NAM’s belief that Eisenhower was not a communist and distancing itself from any organization that thought differently. It was widely seen as a censure, but it had the unintended effect of solidifying NAM’s connection to the Birch society in the public mind. So the board hired a firm to reorganize NAM, in a move that would bring in a new permanent president from outside the organization and diminish the power of the executive committee and the Birch Society allies ensconced therein. But it wasn’t just the Birchers that were purged. Indeed, the reorganization seemed to marginalize the pro-tariff, anti-U.N., small-government conservatives that had long been a pain in the neck for NAM’s free trade globalists.
Under the new organization, these free trade globalists, many of them heads of large multinational corporations, played a larger role in NAM, which made the organization a much more effective lobbyist in Cold War America. They welcomed the government’s Cold War trade policies that opened the U.S. market to imports from America’s anti-communist allies, which in turn provided those allies with dollars to buy U.S. exports. They supported foreign aid to encourage development and investment opportunities. They were the beneficiaries of government defense contracts. And they adopted a more socially responsible stance toward the issues of the day, namely Black civil rights. After years in the wilderness, NAM was on the government’s team and export-oriented and large multinational manufacturers reaped the benefits — although American workers and unions did not.
The long-term fate of those industrial workers, of course, contributed to Trump’s election victory in 2016. During his administration, the ghosts of the old protectionists seemingly returned to haunt and taunt an organization that was even more tied to and invested in global supply chains, trade deals and international cooperation than ever before. Trump rode into office cursing unfair trade deals, open borders, the U.N. and multinational corporations. He swung the tariff like a cudgel through the carefully crafted supply chains that had revived U.S.-based manufacturing in the 21st century, undoing much of NAM’s work, but claiming to be “helping” the industry.
It is the fate of lobbyists to have to work with the government in power. So of course NAM sought to get what it could out of Trump’s pro-manufacturing show. They were hardly going to say no to tax cuts. But everything about this administration — its nativism, its xenophobia, its obsession with borders, the tariffs and most of all its chaos — has been a disaster for U.S. manufacturing.
The group that attacked the Capitol bore little physical resemblance to the uptight and rule-abiding John Birchers. But the two groups share a fantastical sense of conspiracy that fuels a fear of government, change and foreigners. And Timmons was right to connect this to Trump and slap it down, hopefully reminding people that manufacturing’s success has always rested on the free and open exchange of goods, people and ideas.