McLean, Va. -- WITH THE COLLAPSE of U.S.-Japan trade talks, the hour of the economic nationalist may be at hand.
Demands that Japan open its market to more American autos and parts have been rudely rebuffed. Japan's top negotiator has virtually dared us to impose sanctions.
We will haul you up before the World Trade Organization, Tokyo warns. There we will have you branded a violator of the free-trade principles you so noisily preach -- before an international tribunal you yourselves set up.
Angry Clintonites reportedly intend to impose 100 percent tariffs on $1 billion of Japan's exports. This doesn't even qualify as a spanking.
Americans are in a mood for action. And Republicans should demand more serious sanctions.
Since 1970, Japan has purchased 400,000 U.S. cars, while selling us 40 million. Where Tokyo runs an annual trade surplus of $150 billion, our merchandise trade deficit has hit $166 billion.
As this vast transfer of U.S. wealth was taking place, we were spending 6 percent of our gross national product on defense, while Tokyo kept defense spending below 1 percent.
But now that Japan has given President Bill Clinton the wet mitten across the face, what is America to do?
Free trade ideologues side with the Japanese. To them, trade deficits don't matter. U.S. consumers who swap dollars for quality Japanese goods are the real winners. But it is getting harder to convince the nation.
As our share of the world gross domestic product has fallen, the real income of Americans who work with their hands, tools and machines has fallen 20 percent in 20 years.
Anecdotal evidence of a new two-tier economy is everywhere. College graduates come home to live with parents. Mothers leave children in day care to take jobs to maintain the family's standard of living.
Japan's negotiators hang tough because they're not ideologues. They're economic nationalists looking out for Japan first.
And why should they abandon the protectionist policy that has worked splendidly for them to adopt a U.S.-style trade policy that has failed dismally for us?
As for those U.S. officials who lecture them on free trade, Japan's envoys must have a special contempt. Many wind up on Tokyo's payroll as Washington lobbyists, parroting the Japanese line.
But middle America is losing patience. Even establishment journalists are writing that we are being played for fools.
Congress, for once, should take unilateral action in the national interest. An across-the-board tariff of 10 percent on all Japanese goods entering the United States would net $12.5 billion.
That shock would awaken Tokyo to the new reality that we Americans have begun looking out for America first. The revenue could be used to cut corporate taxes on small business, thus creating new American jobs, in addition to the new jobs created when Detroit recaptures its old markets.
If Japan retaliates, raise the tariff to 20 percent. Japan cannot win a trade war with America. It would be putting at risk $125 billion in exports to us, while we would risk but $60 billion in exports to Japan.
Toward free traders like Canada and Europe, our policy should remain free trade. But toward predators like Japan and China, it is time for hardball.
Let us return to the trade policy created by Washington and Hamilton, pursued by Jefferson and Jackson, perfected by Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
Called the American system, it converted the United States from 13 rural colonies into the greatest industrial power the world had ever seen, producing 40 percent of the world's goods by World War II.
After all, the powers that have lately embraced this system are today running the world's great trade surpluses.
Patrick J. Buchanan is seeking the Republican presidential nomination.