Donald Trump’s attack on U.S. trade agreements signals a remarkable rebellion within the GOP against a long-established Republican orthodoxy.
Polls show this ideological break clearly jibes with a feeling among older, working-class whites that the party’s veneration of the “global economy” has served the nation poorly.
The New York billionaire is tapping into a reservoir of skepticism and resentment — one that began in such places as the Rust Belt well before he announced for president.
Now Trump, to be nominated by what is traditionally considered the party of business, even attacks the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
This week he darkly accused the organization of being “totally controlled by the special interest groups,” and of allowing “China and many others” to take advantage of the United States “with our terrible trade pacts.” He called the chamber’s motives “sinister.” Three times, he denounced the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a “rape” enabled by President Barack Obama.
And yet it was only four years ago that the Republican Party pounded Obama with exactly the opposite argument.
“The Free Trade Agreements negotiated with friendly democracies . . . facilitated the creation of nearly ten million jobs supported by our exports,” declared the 2012 GOP platform on which Mitt Romney ran.
“That record makes all the more deplorable the current administration’s slowness in completing agreements begun by its predecessor and its failure to pursue any new trade agreements with friendly nations.”
As with last month’s Brexit move, there are also populist elements on the left criticizing the deals. Bernie Sanders was just the latest when he railed against TPP as a corporate job-export deal.
Even Robert Reich, labor secretary in the Bill Clinton administration, has been a consistent critic of the trade deals, starting with NAFTA — although he reported in his own memoir that he kept his mouth shut as Congress approved it.
More recently, Reich wrote that the pacts are “mostly about protecting the assets and profits of global corporations rather than increasing American jobs and wages.”
Hillary Clinton awkwardly switched sides this year to oppose TPP, which she had supported.
Clearly, Trump looks to cash in, even at this late date, from bashing NAFTA, which was initiated under President George H.W. Bush and carried to fruition by his successor, Bill Clinton.
When that first deal was still in formation, the most conspicuous objections came from conservative nationalists.
Ross Perot’s third-party candidacy in 1992 drew support from those on the right unhappy with Bush. The wealthy Texan made his NAFTA resistance famous by talking about “that giant sucking sound” pulling jobs and investment into Mexico.
Pat Buchanan, a longtime trade-deal critic and onetime independent presidential candidate, was quoted as predicting in 2005: “Economic nationalism’s coming in Europe. It’s going to come to the U.S. It is the future of this country.”
Trump, who began echoing the same stances just in time for his campaign, still benefits big time from the world’s status quo economic scenario — unlike many who might cheer him at his rallies.
He has business interests in Russia, Turkey, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates. Products that bear his name have been made in China, Honduras and Bangladesh, as noted in The Washington Post.
Trump expresses no intention of divesting from his businesses if he wins the election.
Suspicion that the powers-that-be have global interests in opposition to America’s has cropped up repeatedly in the past 100 years, whether in response to Woodrow Wilson’s agenda in World War I or in later concerns about Soviet sympathizers.
Another such moment has arrived, at least for an important swath of rank-and-file Republicans, if not the long-term party leadership.