REPUBLICANS have long prided themselves on their commitment to free markets. These days, however, there seem to be fewer and fewer industries in which the GOP is unwilling to intervene. On June 1st—just as America’s fellow members of the G7, a club of the world’s biggest economies, were condemning Donald Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminium at a meeting in Canada—the president announced a new regulatory plan for America’s energy market. The proposal, which was detailed in a 41-page memo circulated among senior White House staff, would prop up ailing coal- and nuclear-power generators by forcing electricity-grid operators to buy energy from unprofitable plants. The official justification for the policy was national security. But the chief beneficiaries would be a small number of companies, located mainly in Midwestern states whose voters backed Mr Trump in the presidential election of 2016 (see map).

Mr Trump’s plan has been in the making for months. Last September Rick Perry, the energy secretary, asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the country’s top electricity regulator, to give billions of dollars in subsidies to coal- and nuclear-power plants that keep 90 days worth of fuel supplies on site. The commission, which includes four members appointed by Mr Trump, rejected the proposal unanimously. Six months later FirstEnergy, a power company in Ohio, asked the Department of Energy to invoke Section 202 of the Federal Power Act—a declaration normally reserved for times of war and other emergencies—to intervene in energy markets to prevent coal and nuclear power plants from shutting down. The firm’s plea fell on deaf ears, and it declared bankruptcy two days later. In May, however, the tide turned, when Mr Perry told members of the House of Representatives that he was considering using the Defense Production Act of 1950 to prop up failing power plants in the name of national security.

Mr Trump’s latest proposal would direct regional grid operators to buy power from coal and nuclear plants, which have been struggling to compete with natural gas and renewable-energy sources for years. The cost, however, would be borne by consumers, and could come to as much as $12bn a year. This heavy-handed intervention in energy markets has upset many orthodox Republicans, and even some bosses in the coal industry. In December Nora Brownell, a former FERC commissioner appointed by George W. Bush, described the proposed subsidies as “cash for cronies”. The Energy Department is nevertheless expected to carry out its plan in the coming months. Whether it survives legal challenges by natural gas and renewable energy companies is unclear. While the executive branch’s emergency powers are broad, and while the courts tend to defer to the executive on national security matters, legal experts reckon that the plan has a slim chance of success in the long-term.

Mr Perry, however, has no reservations about advancing the president’s industrial policy. “What’s the cost of freedom”, Mr Perry asked lawmakers in October while defending the Trump administration’s proposed regulations to benefit particular energy companies. “What does it cost to build a system to keep America free?”