Trump is not 'softening' on trade

Donald Trump's big RNC night in 90 seconds
Donald Trump's big RNC night in 90 seconds

Donald Trump has revolutionized the Republican Party's trade policy. He's made "free trade" a dirty word and replaced it with what he calls "America first."

From day one of his campaign, it's been clear where Trump stands on trade and immigration. He wants to build a real wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to stop the flow of people across the border, and he wants to erect an economic wall -- in the form of taxes, tariffs and legal restrictions -- on any goods coming into the U.S. from China and Mexico.

But just how far would Trump really go? Economists across the political spectrum predict economic disaster if Trump actually succeeds in pushing through everything he's said on trade and immigration.

Yet so far, Trump isn't backing down. In the biggest speech of his life Thursday night at the Republican National Convention, Trump sounded ready to do it all.

"I am going to bring our jobs back," Trump promised an enthusiastic crowd. He slammed NAFTA and other major trade deals signed by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. "I pledge to never sign any trade agreement that hurts our workers."

Related: Is America's middle class too pessimistic?

Trump's big problem on trade

Trump didn't actually say "tariff" in the speech this time, though. That word really scares Wall Street and businesses. But he didn't have to. He implied he would use the toughest tools out there, especially on China, to ensure America will "start building and making things again."

Many experts warn that policies such as pulling the U.S. out of NAFTA, putting a massive 45% tariff on Chinese imports and deporting over 11 million illegal immigrants would start a trade war, sink the U.S. economy into a major recession and cost millions of the jobs.

"He didn't repeat [his call for] tariffs, but he didn't say anything other than the hard line on trade," says economist Doug Holtz-Eakin, head of the right-leaning American Action Forum, which has warned that Trump's trade policies would be terrible for the economy and force American families to pay hundreds, if not thousands more, a year for goods.

Trump's speech was aimed at solidifying the base, says Holtz-Eakin, not reaching out to people on the fence, especially in the business community.

Related: Trump's GOP wants to break up big banks

Trump's advisors imply a pivot is coming

Many of Trump's economic advisers like billionaire hedge fund manger Carl Icahn and long-time business pundit Larry Kudlow have tried to convince the business world that Trump won't do anything that extreme to impale the economy. It's just campaign rhetoric, they argue.

"I think Donald is a pragmatist. He's going to do what's needed for this economy," Icahn has said. He believes that policies like breaking up NAFTA just aren't going to happen.

At a Politico event this week in Cleveland, Trump economic adviser Stephen Moore also tamed down expectations of what the GOP candidate can do on immigration.

"He's not going to deport them all," Moore said, a reference to the fact that it's too costly to go after all the illegal immigrants.

But so far, the pivot to softer, more pragmatic policies that his advisers keep hinting at hasn't happened.

Related: 'Without NAFTA, we would be out of business'

"He gave a very strong speech. It was aimed as much at his base as anything else," says economist Peter Morici of the University of Maryland.

A strong advocate of getting tough on China, Morici points out that the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico is only $62 billion versus a $360 billion gap with China. Morici was disappointed not to hear explicit calls for a hefty tariff on China last night, but he notes, "Just because something is omitted doesn't mean he's disavowed it."

Personal Finance


CNNMoney Sponsors