Donald Trump launched an all-out assault on America’s free trade agreements this week — hitting a peak in his anti-trade message that’s swept him through the primary season and into the general election.
And in doing so, he’s breaking completely with decades of Republican orthodoxy, staring down party leaders and some of their top messengers over an issue that has helped define the GOP.
During a speech titled “Declaring American Economic Independence” earlier this week, Trump called for pulling out of the North American Free Trade Agreement and for Congress to refuse to ratify the landmark Trans-Pacific Partnership. He also demanded that presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton pledge to withdraw from TPP on her first day in office should she be elected.
He called NAFTA the “greatest jobs theft in history” during his Tuesday speech from just outside of Pittsburgh, and later said during a rally in Southeast Ohio that night that TPP is “another disaster done and pushed by special interests who just want to rape our country.”
“A continuing rape of our country,” he said. “That’s what it is, too. It’s a harsh word. It’s a rape of our country.”
Trump’s tough stance on trade aligns him much closer with the liberal left than it does with the traditional Republicans. As Trump was blasting trade in a series of speeches and events this week, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders called for ensuring that TPP doesn’t get a vote before Congress. Even presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, the candidate most aligned with the Obama administration, having served in it as secretary of state, has come out against TPP as it’s currently structured.
“Democrats must do all they can to defeat the TPP. #StopTPP,” Sanders wrote in a tweet.
But no one’s anti-trade message has been as hard-lined as Trump’s, who places the blame for economic hardships at home squarely on increased globalization.
GOP Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a fierce critic of Trump, told Business Insider in an interview this week that the Manhattan billionaire’s message of “economic independence” is simply a code for “Fortress America.”
“Anybody who believes that we’re going to grow economically and deal with the huge fiscal problems that we have from shutting ourselves off from the rest of the world is just certainly not what I’d call a Republican,” he said. “I mean we believe in free trade. We still do. NAFTA is not a dirty word.”
Trump, who’s clothing line is produced overseas, has made an anti-trade argument that is “easier to identify,” Flake said. He added that defending trade is much more difficult to properly explain than it is to show employees who’ve lost their jobs because a factory closed or relocated.
“But it’s more difficult to identify on the net, companies that have benefited from exports, cheaper goods,” he said. “Not just cheaper goods but cheaper inputs. So, takes a lot longer than a 30 second soundbite. It’s incumbent on us who have six-year terms to be talking about this and I mean in an election campaign, you certainly prioritise what you play up and play down but boy, to play into the rhetoric and not challenge it that is going on is inexcusable I think.”
He said Congress needs to “suck up” and ratify TPP because “it has to be done.”
“I do still think there are enough people that realise we’ve got to do it,” he said.
Tony Fratto, the deputy press secretary in the Bush administration who is now a managing partner at Hamilton Place Strategies, was heavily involved in the administration’s international trade policy. He told Business Insider in May that an “overwhelming majority of our job loss, especially in manufacturing, has nothing to do with trade at all.”
“It has to do with the application of technology,” he continued. “It’s productivity and management and technology that is being applied to a lot of complex manufacturing that is reducing the need for workers. That is not going to change.”
“There are lots of presidential candidates who have opposed trade — there are no presidents who have opposed trade,” he added. “In the postwar period, there have been no anti-trade presidents. Every president has been pro-trade. Even if they hadn’t been as presidential candidates.”
The sentiment about technology, and not trade, being the reason for so many jobs becoming obsolete was exactly what Obama expressed in his State of the Union address earlier this year. But the argument has fallen mostly on deaf ears.
During this week’s North American Leaders Summit in Ottawa, the subject of trade was front-and-center as Obama stood on stage and answered questions next to his Canadian and Mexican counterparts — Justin Trudeau and Enrique Peña Nieto.
Feeling the growing tide of anti-trade and anti-NAFTA sentiment brewing back home, Obama said people with concerns over trade “have a legitimate gripe about globalization.”
“As the global economy is integrated, what we’ve seen are trend lines across the advanced economies of growing inequality and stagnant wages, and a smaller and smaller share of overall productivity and growth going to workers, and a larger portion going to the top 1 per cent,” he said. “And that’s a real problem.”
If the trend continues, the “social cohesion” and “political consensus needed for liberal market economies starts breaking down.”
Such sentiment helped, in part, to put the “Leave” vote over the top in Brexit, an earth-shattering decision that will lead to the United Kingdom abandoning the European Union.
To address the issue, Obama called for investments in education, rebuilding infrastructure, and having “fair” tax policies.
“And what is absolutely true is, is that too many folks who have been in charge around the world have neglected that side of the equation,” he said. “So we’re going to keep on pushing hard to shape an international order that works for our people. But we’re not going to be able to do that by cutting off trade, because that’s going to make all of us poor.”
He later added a line that has been all-too-common along the trail with Trump: “Free trade also has to be fair trade.”
Bruce Andrews, the deputy secretary of commerce in the Obama administration, didn’t place the blame for “job disruption” on America’s trade agreements during a recent interview with Business Insider.
He said the job loss that has come as a result of globalization has “happened without any trade agreements.”
The deputy secretary also called out people — without naming any specific names — who “cite competition with China” as an example of such a reason to oppose a trade deal such as TPP because “we don’t have a free trade agreement with China.”
“Globalization is going to take place whether we do these trade agreements or not,” he said. “The question is, do we want to write the rules, do we want to make sure that American companies have the same access that companies from other countries are going to have.”
Along with Mexico, the chief reason he is in opposition to NAFTA, Trump has used China as a punching-bag for his anti-trade message.
During an event in New Jersey in May, Trump insinuated that trade deals led to the US being “viewed as the stupid country,” shrugging off the potential consequences of a trade war with other countries.
“These dummies say, ‘Oh, that’s a trade war,'” he said. “Trade war? We’re losing $500 billion in trade with China. Who the hell cares if there’s a trade war?”
Andrews cited various reasons to stand behind TPP: he considers it a renegotiation of NAFTA with Mexico and Canada, raising standards with the two countries, it cuts thousands of tariff lines, which he called “essentially a tax cut” for Americans, and it opens up a much larger portion of the global markets to unrestricted access for American corporations.
He, like Obama, emphasised that the US has to do a better job of training people for the jobs that are available.
“We can’t turn the clock back on globalization,” he said. “Globalization is going to happen whether we like it or not. What we can do is prepare the United States to be competitive, create the technologies of the future, invest in research and development, make sure they’re manufactured here, making sure our workers have the skills to do them, then give the products access to other markets through trade deals.”
The argument that trade deals provide cheaper goods to all Americans, a point that’s made by both Republicans and Democrats who support TPP, was ripped by Trump. During a speech in New Hampshire Thursday, he said “we’re better off paying a little bit more and having jobs.”
“It’s a much better system, the way it used to be,” he said. “We manufacture goods, and sell them to other countries. And a lot of people say the goods will come in and they will be cheaper, yeah, but we lost all our jobs. So we’re better off if the goods aren’t quite as cheap but we keep our jobs. And the goods will be of a higher quality because we do a higher quality good. And we’re known for that. But all of a sudden the jobs are gone.”
In a recent interview with Business Insider, US Trade Representative Michael Froman said the anti-trade message from the campaign — the message championed by Trump — is simple.
“The fact is, you don’t get to vote on automation,” he said. “You don’t get to vote on whether the next generation of computers or robots are going to be brought into your workplace. You don’t really get to vote on globalization. It’s a force. It’s a fact. It’s a reflection of the containerization of shipping, the spread of broadband, the integration of countries like China and Eastern Europe that used to be closed to the global economy are now part of the global economy.”
“Trade agreements become the vessel into which people pour quite legitimate economic insecurities,” he continued. “And you do get to vote on trade agreements, and they do get to become a scapegoat for a lot of the other concerns, legitimate concerns.”