The Republican Party, Trump and Free Trade

After Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney in 2012, the Republican Party vowed to make some big changes.  One of the issues the establishment Republicans promised to rally behind was free trade.  Most conservatives embraced the party’s newfound focus, and this past election, Republican voters had the opportunity to elect a nominee who would defend their right to free and open commerce.

Several of the early 2016 favorites had strong free-trade backgrounds, including Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul: all candidates who supported NAFTA and other free trade agreements (FTAs) during their political careers, and had positive, yet wavering, views on TPP.

No matter what,  the Republican nominee seemed all but destined to be a pro-free-trade candidate—and for good reason. The Republican establishment had witnessed the benefits of free trade through the 15 FTAs enacted in the past decade.

Today, these 15 treaties benefit consumers by intertwining the United States’ economy with 20 other countries around the world.  These 20 countries provide economic competition, which translates into cheaper prices and higher quality goods for consumers

For producers, this competition means businesses must strive to create a surplus to expand the domestic economy, which means more jobs.  For innovators, free trade means discovering new and more efficient ways to keep up with the never-ending demand.  The benefits of free trade were recognized and embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike ever since the disastrous Smoot-Hawley Tariffs of 1930.  

When Donald Trump entered the race as a Republican, however, his campaign’s first move was to attack and demonize FTAs, scapegoat free trade and sever himself from the Republican establishment.

Trump essentially blamed all of the United States’ economic problems on free-trade “globalism,” and rallied blue-collar Americans throughout the country who felt they had gotten the short end of the stick.

Trump repeatedly claimed that NAFTA cut “40%-50% of our manufacturing jobs.” This was, quite frankly, an utter lie.  Since NAFTA was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, the United States’ total manufacturing output only declined by 1% overall.  Even though his claims were complete fabrications, they resonated with a lot of people.

This oversimplification made it easy for voters to resent free trade. The other candidates began to taper down their support for free trade as Trump continued his attacks on NAFTA, TPP, and FTAs in general. Nonetheless, their poll numbers plummeted while Trump’s surged.  

Trump can credit his win, in large part, to his anti-trade rhetoric.  A lot of Americans, specifically blue-collar workers living in rural areas, were frustrated with the lack of economic growth in their industries.  Trump gave these people someone to blame: The Chinese, the Mexicans, all of those people that have been “stealing” our manufacturing jobs.  But above all, Trump pointed the finger at the “corrupt” politicians who allowed the country to be ripped off by enacting FTAs.  

While TPP will most likely not pass, it’s important for the public to keep an eye on new and existing FTAs that have been threatened by our President-elect. Hopefully, the pro-trade members of congress will not abandon their convictions in light of this new populist obsession. Instead, they ought to educate our incoming president about the importance and benefits of free commerce, which has helped so many people improve their lives.

-Michael Mastrianna

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