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Dan Liljenquist: Can Donald Trump be considered a Luddite?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to introductory remarks before speaking in New York's Trump Tower building, Monday, April 18, 2016.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to introductory remarks before speaking in New York's Trump Tower building, Monday, April 18, 2016.
Richard Drew, AP

On Tuesday, Donald Trump delivered a fiery policy speech in Pennsylvania steel country lauding Britain’s choice to leave the European Union, decrying globalization and free-trade policies, and demanding that America, like Britain, declare its “economic independence” from the rest of the world. Trump’s target audience was the millions of former middle-class, blue-collar workers who have, over the past 20 years, lost both their jobs and way of life in the face of fierce global competition. Trump’s message is simple — he promises to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. by protecting U.S. workers from the global free market.

Trump’s populist economic plan is reminiscent of the Luddite movement in England in the early 1900s. In that turbulent time, automated looms and other mechanical production techniques were replacing certain higher-paying jobs in England’s textile mills. The displaced workers revolted, destroying the labor-saving machines with the objective of bringing back their jobs. But the Luddites could not hold back the rising tide of technology-driven industrialization. Old jobs disappeared and new jobs were created as technology advanced, improving the quality and lowering the price of manufactured goods. The Luddites became a footnote in history, and today the Oxford Dictionary defines a Luddite as “a person opposed to increased industrialization or new technology.”

Trump’s “economic independence” plan is a Luddite fantasy. There can be no rewinding of the clock to the labor-intensive assembly lines of the 1950s and 1960s; there is no turning back from the worldwide market. Global trade is a modern economic reality, as is the rapid transformation from labor-based manufacturing to automated manufacturing. Trump cannot create a manufacturing renaissance by instituting protectionist tariffs. His plan would only serve to wall off U.S. markets and drive up domestic prices. Americans make up a mere 4 percent of the world’s population. We cannot afford to disengage with the other 96 percent.

Trump’s “economic independence” speech blamed free-trade agreements for the outsourcing of “U.S. manufacturing jobs.” What he and many others fail to understand is that technology drove, and is driving, the globalization of trade. Ultrafast communications networks, ubiquitous computers, efficient shipping and stable power grids have flattened the global economy, creating a global labor market. Manufacturing jobs shifted overseas because American labor was more expensive than much of the rest of the world. Now those same “outsourced” jobs are being displaced by ever-improving factory automation.

Americans don’t own the manufacturing market (or any market, for that matter). Basic laws of supply and demand govern markets. If we want to compete with the rest of the world for manufacturing jobs, American workers must add more value to manufactured products than workers in other countries.

I agree with Trump on at least one point: Revitalizing manufacturing in the U.S. is key to our long-term economic success. But our focus should be on the future, not the past. We can turbocharge our manufacturing sector by (1) embracing technological advances in manufacturing, including next-generation automation, (2) revamping technical education in our community colleges by combining traditional skills-based trades with basic computer programming, (3) training displaced or unemployed factory workers on new manufacturing techniques, and (4) removing burdensome regulatory barriers for new manufacturing businesses.

I’m not surprised that Trump is playing the Luddite in the general election. He has made it this far with his populist message, capitalizing on the hopes and fears of his adoring crowds. With his poll numbers tanking in traditional swing states, Trump will have to turn the table in the blue-collar states to have a chance of winning. Trump is betting that his protectionist message will resonate with enough blue-collar Democrats to pull it off.

Dan Liljenquist is a former Republican state senator from Utah and former U.S. Senate candidate. He is nationally recognized for work on entitlement reform.