Trump’s Populist Con Job On Trade

One of the things that has become ubiquitous since Donald Trump was inaugurated is that almost every day we see new stories about how his policies would hurt the working class people who supported him. Going back to the election, some of us never bought the idea that Trump was actually a populist. After all, he had spent his entire career trying to gain the favor of the wealthy and conning the less fortunate. Why would his presidency be any different?

More than any other issue, Trump brandished his populist appeal on the issue of trade. Some Sanders supporters even bought into the idea that he was better on that issue than Clinton. Perhaps they didn’t pay attention during one of the debates when Trump promised to put his corporate buddies in charge of re-negotiating those agreements. But that is exactly the moment I knew his position on that issue was nothing more than a con job.

Now, as people like Paul Krugman are beginning to document, we’re seeing that the president never bothered to think anything through beyond the con. His executive orders on trade last week were a total “nothingburger” and he only plans to make modest changes to NAFTA. Krugman explains why.

…back when Mr. Trump was railing against trade deals, he had no idea what he was talking about. (I know, you’re shocked to hear that.)

For example, listening to the Tweeter-in-chief, you’d think that Nafta was a big giveaway by the United States, which got nothing in return. In fact, Mexico drastically cut its tariffs on goods imported from the U.S., in return for much smaller cuts on the U.S. side…

Talking nonsense about trade didn’t hurt Mr. Trump during the campaign. But now he’s finding out that those grossly unfair trade deals he promised to renegotiate aren’t all that unfair, after all, leaving him with no idea what to do next.

Just as Trump’s lies about bringing back coal jobs are based on a mythical understanding of the root of the problem, his castigation of trade agreements as the source of the problem for working class Americans is based on a lie.

It’s not that there aren’t problems with NAFTA. There are. But as Michael Grunwald recently wrote, “the Obama administration already renegotiated NAFTA.” They did it via the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement – which was not only vilified during the campaign, but which Trump immediately abandoned. And yet this is what the WSJ suggested is happening in their current negotiations with Mexico.

…Jeffrey Schott, a trade scholar at the Peterson Institute for International Economics…noted that a number of the proposed negotiating objectives echo provisions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade pact among Pacific Rim countries.

As Grunwald reports, that is going to be a lot harder to accomplish outside of the TPP.

When I asked Obama’s trade representative, Michael Froman, what his negotiating team had given up to Mexico and Canada in exchange for their TPP concessions to America, he replied: “Nothing!” Mexico and Canada were willing to play ball because TPP would give them better access to sell their products in Asian markets—and when Trump tries to renegotiate NAFTA, he won’t be able to offer that carrot now that he’s ditched TPP.

What we are likely to witness is yet another failure of the Trump administration. Krugman finishes with a very apt comparison.

The point is that at a deep level Trumptrade is running into the same wall that caused Trumpcare to crash and burn. Mr. Trump came into office talking big, sure that his predecessors had messed everything up and he — he alone — could do far better. And millions of voters believed him.

But governing America isn’t like reality TV. A few weeks ago Mr. Trump whined, “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.” Now, one suspects, he’s saying the same thing about trade policy.

Let’s just say that “governing is complicated.” That applies whether your are trying to reform health care, deal with immigration or re-negotiate trade deals – to name just a few. While an emotional appeal to populism might win elections, it doesn’t actually get the job done. Competency matters.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.