Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Lighthizer Wins the Long Game

Once a voice crying out in the wilderness, the GOP trade expert has seen his ideas enter the mainstream.

US Trade Rep Robert Lighthizer Testifies On Trump's Trade Policy Before Senate Finance Committee
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on U.S. trade on June 17, 2020. (Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty Images)

Robert Lighthizer uses his hands when he talks. As a public figure, he talks a lot, so he uses his hands a lot. 

Talking about corporate globalism? Fingers whip to the side. Cheap t-shirts and television sets? Palms face forward. Growing trade deficit? Forefinger stands straight up.


For decades, his hand has shaken those of presidents, foreign dignitaries, and businessmen, and has sought to guide American trade policy from an extreme to a mean. As the former ambassador would tell it, that extreme is a sort of free trade idealism that prioritizes price optimization and consumption over community values and production.  

Most recently, Lighthizer served as the United States Trade Representative (USTR) under President Trump. Before that, he was a partner at a major law firm focusing on international trade law, deputy trade representative under Reagan’s Bill Brock, and chief of staff for the Senate Finance Committee when it was chaired by Bob Dole.

Since leaving office, the former ambassador has refused paid board positions because of his expectation that they would “limit [his] ability to speak on the issues,” but has accepted positions at a number of advocacy groups; he is the chair of the Center for American Trade at the America First Policy Institute (AFPI), board member at Oren Cass’s American Compass, and advisor at Mike Pence’s Advancing American Freedom. On the week of our interview, he sat for a panel at AFPI’s summit and offered a keynote at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s American Economic Forum. He continues to write editorials for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and is working on a book that will combine elements of policy prescription and memoir.

Simply put, Lighthizer is using his time in relative retirement “building up that consensus, lobbying through these institutions, [and] meeting with people.” His record proves that he’s good at building consensus, lobbying, and meeting. While the Senate was confirming many of Trump’s appointees along party lines, Lighthizer was confirmed by a vote of 82-14, including "yea" votes from members as far to the Democratic left as New Jersey's Cory Booker and Hawaii's Mazie Hirono. The same chamber approved his United States-Mexico-Canada agreement in an 89-10 vote.  A native of Ashtabula, Ohio, Lighthizer received two thumbs up from Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown. During his confirmation hearing, Brown said that he “know[s]” that Lighthizer “is ready to get to work building a new trade policy that puts American workers first.”

The ambassador told me that “personality helps, but policy is what’s enduring.” From his perspective, the only people who don’t like him are the “ardent free trade lobbyist types. They view me as the Satan who’s created a new religion, and it’s against their religion.” His policies dismissed the notion of free trade as a dogmatic philosophy that is short-sighted in theory and impossible in practice. For Lighthizer, a focus on maximizing consumption might make sense in a time of scarcity, “but we’re not in that time. What it does now is it feeds more materialism [and] excess consumption, [a]nd materialism is the opposite of conservatism. Materialism is about consumption and the neglect of values.”


Cue the word for which the former ambassador is most known: tariffs. He considers this mechanism to be a reasonable way to both raise revenue and regulate imbalanced trading practices: “Tariffs are good when they accomplish certain things, and they’re bad when they don’t.” Riffing on Oliver Wendell Holmes’s quote about taxation, Lighthizer called tariffs “the price you pay for family and communities.”

This attitude on tariffs was not a popular one in the GOP when Lighthizer started his job at the USTR. The last time tariffs were mentioned at the Republican National Convention with Lighthizer-level enthusiasm was at the 1932 convention that nominated President Hoover. Then, the RNC claimed that “The Republican Party has always been the staunch supporter of the American system of a protective tariff.” By the 1980 convention, the Republican position was that “protectionist tariffs and quotas are detrimental to our economic well-being,” and by 2004, the Bush II re-election platform boasted of “eliminating tariffs.”

As the former ambassador said at the recent AFPI summit, “it’s not without precedent for me to have a view different than everyone else in a room.” When his positions on trade were less mainstream on the right, Lighthizer looked to the democracy of the dead for intellectual support. A living supporter of this tradition was TAC’s own Pat Buchanan, whom Lighthizer called “a hero of mine” and welcomed to speak to his political advisors in the Trump administration.

In a 2018 Associated Press editorial, Buchanan quoted Congressman Abraham Lincoln: “Abandonment of the protective policy by the American Government must result in the increase of both useless labor and idleness and ... must produce want and ruin among our people.” Buchanan went on to say, “In our time, the abandonment of economic patriotism produced in Middle America what Lincoln predicted, and what got Trump elected.”

Lighthizer agrees with this analysis: “I think he’s exactly right, and you can go way before Lincoln to Clay, who was Lincoln’s hero, and really to Hamilton, who was Clay’s hero. You can see a steady line. America became great by using subsidies, but mostly tariffs, and an America First policy.”

Where was the breaking point for the American right on tariffs and a protectionist trade policy? According to the ambassador, American postwar trade policy overstayed its welcome: “we embarked on this kind of post-WWII consensus, as free traders would call it, but it really wasn’t a consensus. There was a practical decision to do certain things for utterly economic reasons, and I would say that when you’re really, really, really, really, really, relatively rich, it’s a fine tradeoff, but when you’re in debt like we are, it’s not a fine trade-off anymore.”

Lighthizer has sat across the table from the vice premier of the CCP and countless other foreign diplomats in conversations that would have demanded persuasion. There’s no telling whether those negotiations or the policy conversations he’s endured at home have required more intense levels of persuasive tact. According to the ambassador, his central positions have not changed over the years. He was writing editorials in the New York Times in the late '90s analyzing the U.S.-China relationship, criticizing China’s entrance into the WTO, and wryly critiquing dogmatic free trade-ism.

The ambassador credits his priorities and attitudes on trade policy to instinct: “It’s more a question of who you’re sympathetic to: are you sympathetic to elites or working people? It’s just a basic instinct, and my instinct has always been for working people. That’s why I get along with a lot of Democrats, because I agree with them on a lot of things.” He says that working people on Main Street are “infinitely more likely to understand” the value in Trump-Lighthizer trade policy than elites, “whose reason is clouded by self-interest.”

In Lighthizer’s words, the Trump administration “sought to balance the benefits of trade liberalization with policies that prioritize the dignity of work.” Now, Lighthizer considers his views on trade to be "mainstream," and the WSJ admits that “Republicans have embraced tariffs." When the next Republican administration comes to town, it will have a legacy – and a growing consensus – to either confront or maintain.