COMMENTARY: Democrats failing to offer an alternative to Donald Trump

Will anyone develop a coherent ideological alternative to Trumpism? If early signs are any reliable indication, it won’t be the Democrats.

That’s the takeaway from the evidence of how the minority party in Congress responded to President Trump’s speech to a joint session.

The two most troubling elements of Democratic response came in the China-trade-bashing and the Wall Street-bashing.

The China-bashing came in a tweet issued by the newly elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez. Perez, who had been labor secretary in the Obama administration. He mocked Trump’s “buy American” idea by posting a photograph of a “Donald J. Trump signature collection” brand silk necktie with a “made in China” tag.

It wasn’t clear whether Perez was attacking Trump for his hypocrisy, or for sending jobs overseas by allowing a license holder to purchase Chinese-made silk or neckties manufactured abroad.

Either way, what Perez wasn’t doing was explaining that the Chinese have been cultivating silkworms for 5,000 years, while the American silk business has never amounted to much. If Perez wants to start raising silkworms in his backyard or invest in some American company that thinks it can do that better than the Chinese can, good luck to him. Until then, silk seems a classic example of what economists call comparative advantage — the idea that Americans are better off buying silk from China and focusing instead on other industries where we can do things better than the Chinese.

Thinking of the Chinese-made necktie as a loss to the American economy is an error of zero-sum thinking. In fact the voluntary exchange is mutually beneficial. Americans benefit from buying the ties, and the Chinese benefit from selling them.

President Reagan articulated this crisply back in 1986, when he cited David Ricardo, a British economist who lived from 1772 to 1823. “He held, simply, that if each nation concentrated on the production of the articles that it could produce most efficiently, then traded those with other nations to obtain the articles it needed, not some but all nations would be likely to see their living standards rise,” Reagan said. “Ricardo was right, that vigorous world trade leads to higher standards of living for all.”

The Wall Street bashing came most crassly in a tweet from a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, Stephen Lynch, who said, “The Trump White House needs a Goldman Sachs hiring freeze.”

It was also evident from the Senate Democratic leader, Charles Schumer. Schumer retweeted a line from the former governor of Kentucky, Steve Beshear, who gave the Democrats’ televised response to Trump’s speech: “Trump picked a cabinet of billionaires and Wall Street insiders. … That’s not being our champion, that’s being Wall Street’s champion.”

Schumer represents New York and fundraises extensively from its financial industry. Alas, it’s probably asking too much for him to defend that industry’s value in public. As for Goldman Sachs, it was only a few months ago that Democrats were bashing Trump for the supposed anti-Semitic theme of a campaign video that featured an image of Goldman’s CEO. Trump accused Hillary Clinton of being “totally owned by Wall Street.”

Maybe the Democrats think running against Wall Street and China trade worked so well politically for Trump in the 2016 campaign that it’s worth copying. That gets the politics and the substance wrong. The country would be better off if, on these topics, the Democrats — or at least some political movement — followed the advice conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly offered in her 1964 book: “A Choice Not An Echo.”

Ira Stoll is editor of and author of “JFK: Conservative.” His column appears Sunday.