Micek: Trump could be the next Herbert Hoover

John L. Micek
John Micek, editorial and opinions editor for PennLive/The Patriot-News.

One of them is a free trade-wary millionaire and political neophyte who locked up the Republican presidential nomination with promises to make America great and get the economy firing on all cylinders.

The other is Donald Trump.

As he's insulted, ranted and bullied his way through the 2016 primary season, there's been an inclination on the part of some pundits (including this one) to compare the decidedly authoritarian Trump to history's great strongmen (Benito Mussolini, anyone?).

As it turns out — wrong guy. But it was the right era.

He's really Herbert Hoover, the protectionist president whose disastrous tenure from 1929-1933 cratered the U.S. banking system and helped (as The National Review points out) plunge the nation and the world "into a decade-long depression."

With his decisive win in Tuesday's Indiana primary and his position as the GOP's 2016 nominee seemingly assured by the exit of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, it's worth considering what Trump shares in common with our 31st president.

Like Trump, Hoover made his fortune in business — in his case, the coal industry. And, like Trump, he was a late-comer to politics and had neither previous electoral nor military experience.

But unlike Trump, Hoover had a more than glancing acquaintance with government, serving as head of the Food & Drug Administration during World War I and as Commerce Secretary under Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge.

If he's remembered for anything, Hoover is best remembered for the (and say it loud, Ferris Bueller fans), Hawley-Smoot tariff of 1930 that slapped a punishingly high levy on some 20,000 imported goods.

The tariff, coupled with bad laws enacted by both Republicans and Democrats, is credited for helping spark the Great Depression. According to author George Melloan, it doubled the average levy on imported goods from 25 percent to 50 percent, and then "U.S. exports dived to $1.7 billion in 1933 from $5.2 billion in 1929." American farmers, whom the tariff was originally intended to help, took a $1 billion hit in lost business.

That matters because Trump has threatened to slap a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports and a 35 percent levy on Mexican imports.

And financial experts have warned of similar economic tumult.

"Imposing tariffs or putting up trade barriers may sound good, but it will hurt our economy and credibility," Wendy Cutler, the former acting deputy U.S. Trade Representative who helped lead U.S. negotiations in the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, told Reuters.

Trump's proposed policy would kneecap the American auto industry, "which has fully integrated Mexico into its production network," with roughly $118 billion worth of vehicles and parts crossing both north and south in 2015.

A 35 percent tariff would hike the cost of "Ford Motor Co's U.S.-assembled F-series and medium-duty pickup trucks that use Mexican-made diesel engines, one of its most profitable vehicle lines," Reuters reported.

And that means you'd pay more, too — just by the way.

Comfortingly, Melloan notes that such a scenario is unlikely to repeat itself today, where most Americans realize that just about everything they buy is the result of the free flow of goods and services across borders.

That seems to be lost on Trump and his supporters, who view U.S. trade policy is a "unilateral economic surrender" because it "allows foreign competitors to shut out U.S imports, devalue their currencies and unfairly target U.S. industries," Reuters reported.

And while U.S. industry could certainly use a shot in the arm, the amputation that Trump suggests on the stump to cheers from his adoring throng, isn't what the manufacturing sector has in mind.

"I don't think he does our issue any favors by making it so incredibly jingoistic and bombastic," said Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, told Reuters.

For those of you playing along at home, China the United States' No. 1 import partner — Canada is second, Mexico is third.

So Trump's economic populism plays well in Rust Belt states hollowed out by the collapse of manufacturing, but it makes zero sense on the global stage.

To bend the spirit of another of Queens' most famous residents — Archie and Edith Bunker (for whom Trump's message seems tailor-made), Mister, we really don't need a man like Herbert Hoover again.

John L. Micek is the opinion editor and political columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.