Trump’s “Trade War” is Just a Battle in a Much Broader Campaign
If there is one thing even Donald Trump’s most ardent detractors begrudgingly give him credit for is being an “excellent showman.” This is due, in large part, to Trump’s effective marketing of both himself, and, somewhat interchangeably, his brand. As we’ve pointed out here on numerous occasions, Mr. Trump’s success in the primary was more a result of effective marketing than political acumen. Before you say that this is a cynical approach, or an attempt to minimize Trump’s success, the fact is: he is the (presumptive) nominee because he was able to better read the electorate than the people with doctorates and ivory tower credentials.
And, note, when we are saying “he read the electorate,” given the fact that Trump’s “brain trust” of advisors during the primary was a skeleton crew of outsiders (some may, inartfully, call them the Island of Misfit Toys), much of the decision making and “tough calls” likely came down to the man himself. If anything, he was hampered by the people around him rather than bolstered. As we’ve pointed out, ad nauseam, Trump’s greatest strength is his ability to cut through the media noise wall to reach prospective voters. Again, this isn’t meant as fawning adulation; rather, this is merely an assessment of the clear reality we are dealing with in the post-primary, pre-convention timeframe.
Trumpean Economics and Trade
So, the other day Mr. Trump laid out his plan on economics that generally focused on trade. It was principally a rehash of most of the well-trodden Trumpean tropes of “bringing jobs back,” “making great deals,” “renegotiating the terrible trade agreements” that we have as a nation, and “putting killers in the position to negotiate future deals.” Anyone who has even mildly followed Trump’s positions on trade know that these have been the hallmarks of the Trump campaign since the beginning. However, now that he is the nominee, these policies are getting examined in greater detail.
Since, at least, 1993 (the earliest source we could find), Mr. Trump has opposed trade deals that would lower the barriers for integrated markets. Trump opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) during the George HW Bush/Bill Clinton presidencies. He’s seemingly been on record since the late-1980s warning of Asian domination of manufacturing markets. Trump’s opponents are quick to point out that Trump made a considerable amount of money outsourcing his manufacturing work to the same countries that are “ripping us off,” but his supporters argue that it’s just another example of Trump’s savvy (and who wouldn’t want someone who isn’t afraid to make tough decisions in power?).
In actuality, the business community should be more aware of what they would be getting with Trump than with Hillary Clinton, who is racing to head-off Trump on trade despite her lobbying for both NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). She claims that she now opposes the TPP, despite her vocal support during her tenure with the Obama Administration. The rationale is understandable: both Bernie Sanders and Trump are running to Hillary’s “left” on the issue, and she has a glaring weak spot.
The focus of this article isn’t going to be whether a return to a protectionist, “America First,” trade policy would actually benefit the American worker. The rhetoric of neo-mercantilism is obviously appealing to people who have felt wages stagnate and jobs diminish. Without being overly-reductive or needlessly cynical, the reality is that it doesn’t really matter whether the numbers would add up on Trump’s trade proposals. Rather, it matters that voters, especially the ones who feel betrayed by increased globalization, believe that their quality of life would improve.
Marketing, Trade, and Synthetic Logic
This article led off by focusing on the fact that Trump has, without a doubt, focused on effective marketing throughout his campaign. His Twitter feuds, his news-cycle dominating comments, and his targeted attacks, have placed him in the position to be one of two persons who could lead the nation in 2017. Is there more to this trade talk than just manufacturing?
On the heels of Trump’s economics speech, the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers quickly opened up with a salvo against Trump’s plans. Simultaneously, voices in organized labor criticized the Trump plan. These are very unlikely bedfellows. The Chamber is an overwhelmingly pro-“Republican” group representing business. They don’t often see much common ground with the labor movement.
Now, it may seem at first blush that this type of criticism would immediately demand a walk-back from Trump, or at least a movement towards one said or another (as a Republican, Trump would be expected to embrace the Chamber). Trump, however, doubled-down on his position and accused the Chamber of not fighting for the American worker and inexplicably supporting “bad trade deals.”
So, why does this apparent departure not necessarily spell Trump’s doom? Because, in short, this is only nominally about trade and instead focused on an “anti-special-interest” message. Staking out positions that may cause certain classes of people to lose money quickly baits the same into a frenzy of concerned statements and actions. We would think that Trump is keenly aware of this. The populist message of Trump from the beginning has been one “against insiders” and that he is “not a politician.” The juxtaposition with Hillary Clinton, who is pivoting her trade positions 180 degrees couldn’t be more stark.
While not intending to insult the average American, the truth is that most normal folks can’t tell you America’s trade deficit with China or about the interconnectedness of multinational corporations and financial markets. People care, rather, about making sure they have an income and can provide for their families. The Republican Party, to its peril, has generally ignored outsourcing of manufacturing and labor for decades.
But is it Going to Play in West Virginia?
Still, you may think, it’s all well and good that Trump is pushing a relatable message and people will see him as fighting against special interests, but aren’t the special interests just going to win in the end? Another way: special interests, such as they are, have controlled politics for a century, is there really any chance of changing the status quo? The answer to these questions depends greatly on your perception of how receptive the American public is to messaging. Trump is certainly being attacked on all sides at the moment (and, let’s be honest, the media hit pieces are almost comically relentless). So, is there hope for Trump, or will he simply get drowned out by the negativity?
Let’s take two pieces of evidence that indicate that the race shouldn’t be called for Hillary just quite yet. The first is just how badly Hillary Clinton lost West Virginia in the primary against Bernie Sanders (she lost by 15.6%) compared to her victory in the same state against Barack Obama in 2008 (she won by 41.3%). Obviously, there are a myriad of circumstances that go into why people make the decisions that they do on Election Day. However, when Hillary Clinton gave a speech wherein she said she wanted to put “coal miners out of a job,” her fate in West Virginia was basically sealed.
West Virginia is not a battleground state. Trump will likely win over 60% of the vote. However, it is a bellwether for voters in Western Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio, and even parts of Michigan. Trump has made no secret of the fact that he is looking to put each of those states in play in November. If Hillary Clinton is unable (or unwilling) to undo the damage she has done to these communities, it could lead to a revolt in traditionally-Democrat-friendly labor communities. Is this possible? Look at the Brexit vote and the number of Labour voters who voted Leave.
Second, the Republican convention has not been held. There is significant dissention in the ranks of the Party elite and conservative-opinion-shapers against the notion of a Trump nomination. We’ve covered the fact here that a revolt against Trump at the convention is unlikely to succeed (even if there is a “conscience” clause put into the Rules). The simple fact is, there is a vocal, powerful minority who are agitating constantly against Trump. This is certainly their right and they’re free to do so. The reality is that this causes some rank-and-file Republicans to also doubt Trump. Trump, being attacked from the “left” and the “right” finds himself in a depressed political state. As we noted earlier, the conventional wisdom following his trade speech would be to tack rightward or leftward. Rather, Trump has chosen a third option: tack towards “the people.” Something, colloquially, along the lines of pointing at both sides, looking at the audience, and saying, “can you believe this, folks?”
The fact is, after the GOP convention where Trump, officially, becomes the nominee, much of the “Stop Trump” and “Never Trump” criticism will abate. There will, of course, be the holdouts and the folks who stay home. There will be some Republicans who decide to go for Hillary. There may be some who go for Gary Johnson. However, after the threshold of the actual nomination, you can expect that the proverbial “dumpster fire” within the GOP will be extinguished. The consequence of this will be Trump returning to high-80% support among GOP voters by mid-August (current FoxNews numbers have him hovering around 76%).
Is there a “nightmare” scenario where Trump has alienated all of the sides of the debate and he, Sampson-like, gets buried in the collapse? Sure. In fact, that’s what most pundits (who “pundit” for a living) are predicting. However, the right mix of “us against them,” economic populism, anti-globalism, and strength could be a winning combination in November.