“Our politicians are stupid,” Donald Trump said last August, at the first GOP presidential debate. “And the Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning.”
He was talking about immigration policy, but over the last several months, Trump has applied the same logic and language to trade deals.
He has plenty of material to work with. Between 1993 and 2013, more than 850,000 jobs were displaced by the growing trade deficit with Mexico, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute.
“Prominent economists and US government officials predicted that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would lead to growing trade surpluses with Mexico and that hundreds of thousands of jobs would be gained,” the report’s author, Robert E. Scott, wrote. “The evidence shows that the predicted surpluses in the wake of NAFTA’s enactment in 1994 did not materialize.”
To say the least.
Opposition to “free trade” has become so closely tied to Bernie Sanders and the Left that it’s easy to underestimate the hostility aimed at NAFTA, China and now the Trans-Pacific Partnership within some segments of the Right. But it’s there, simmering, and it is dividing the GOP’s grassroots base from the party’s traditional power structures and ideology.
Consider Infowars, the influential right-wing website maintained by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. It published a piece in 2014 listing 20 ways NAFTA is “destroying the economy.” The author noted that, under NAFTA, the U.S. trade deficit had ballooned from about $30 billion to $177 billion. He added that “Barack Obama has been negotiating a secret treaty which would send the deindustrialization of America into overdrive. The formal name of this secret agreement is ‘the Trans-Pacific Partnership,’ and it would ultimately result in millions more good jobs being sent to the other side of the planet where it is legal to pay slave labor wages.”
That critique sounds a lot like what the Left has said about the TPP, of course. But there is also, on the Left, a recognition that pitting U.S. workers against foreign workers is ultimately counterproductive, and that we need not only better trade deals but a labor movement and living-wage standards that transcend national borders.
Trump’s anti-trade rhetoric is, by contrast, part of a broad nativist platform, and his success at winning the states most devastated by deindustrialization will probably determine whether he wins in November. In Ohio alone, nearly 300,000 manufacturing jobs have disappeared since NAFTA became law in 1994. Manufacturing jobs accounted for nearly 24 percent of all private sector jobs in the state at the time. They’re now 15 percent.
The winner in Ohio has won the presidency in all but two elections since 1896. (It went for Thomas Dewey in 1944 and Richard Nixon in 1960.) Ohio is “more reflective of the national average than any other state,” as Kyle Kondik, author of The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President, has noted, and it is “home to members of many different American cultural and political tribes, but it is dominated by none of them.”
Several of the most recent polls show the race in Ohio is tied.
Hillary Clinton, for her part, has partially disowned her husband’s legacy on trade, telling United Auto Workers president Dennis Williams that she would renegotiate NAFTA if elected. She has also changed course on TPP. As secretary of state, she called it “cutting-edge” and “innovative.” She now claims to oppose it, even as President Obama aggressively promotes it. As he said in a press conference this week: “Right now, I’m president and I’m for it, and I think I’ve got the better argument.”
Whatever her actual intentions regarding NAFTA and TPP, though, Clinton seems incapable of acting as if she grasps the plight of people who’ve been left behind by the globalizing, greening economy. In a town-hall meeting in Columbus, Ohio, in March, she said that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” Mindful that she should at least gesture toward empathy, Clinton dutifully added that “we don’t want to forget those people.” The only soundbite that most voters heard, though, was Clinton promising to put coal miners out of work.
The cold political calculation might be that Clinton simply doesn’t need white working-class voters to win the election, and thus isn’t all that concerned with reaching out to them. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democrats’ presumptive leader in the Senate when Harry Reid retires after the current term, reflected this logic recently.
“For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania,” he said, “we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia. And you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”
Given that reasoning, it’s not surprising that white working-class voters would give their loyalty to a candidate who at least acts like he gets it. As a writer for the Toledo Blade recently observed, “The once well-lighted towns of Ohio that have been turned into Appalachian basket cases have no lobby. No Marshall Plan is proposed for them. Their plight is not covered on the evening news. But they have Trump.”
With his steady output of outrage, Trump has often been his own worst enemy over the past year. But for Democrats, the primaries should be a reality check about the growing skepticism toward their recent trade agenda and about the unpredictability of the electorate. Clinton won the Democratic primary in Ohio by about 14 points. But in neighboring Michigan, where manufacturing jobs in the private sector have fallen from nearly 24 percent of the economy to 16 percent since 1994, Sanders’ economic populism delivered a remarkable upset. Several polls put Clinton’s lead at more than 20 points right up to election day. No poll had it at less than 5 percent. The Sanders victory there was “stunning,” as the website FiveThirtyEight put it.
In Columbus, Ohio, this week, during a news cycle dominated by Trump’s feud with the family of a Muslim solider killed in Iraq, Humayun Khan, Trump ignored that controversy and focused on economics, telling the crowd that “Hillary Clinton’s disastrous trade policies are responsible for the manufacturing job losses in Ohio.” NAFTA, he said, is a “bad, bad, bad deal.” But “I take bad deals and make ‘em great.”
Trump would almost certainly not honor that promise if elected. But will Clinton’s history of supporting “bad, bad, bad” trade deals be his trump card in November? That would be striking, but also — given the simmering disquiet across the heartland and the volatility of this political moment — not all that surprising.