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The End of Free Trade?

The increasing polarization of US politics has made this election season incredibly bizarre. On one side of the presidential campaign is a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist. On the other is a right-wing populist billionaire. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, candidates that are more or less political outsiders, leaning the furthest from center, are challenging commonly accepted policies and norms, and galvanizing the people. But despite the pervasive partisan polarization they represent, Trump and Sanders have similar positions on free trade. Their rhetoric and their propositions are driving public political discourse, and dramatically altering the traditional positions of the parties on international trade policy.

Coming from the left and right, both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump agree that free trade is destructive to the economy and target trade deals as the source of the demise of American manufacturing and the middle class. Trump has gone so far to suggest that a 45 percent tax be levied on goods imported from China. In an increasingly polarized country, anti-free trade and protectionist sentiment seems to be one of the only issues that unites the presidential candidates, and the country.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, an extensive free trade pact between the United States and 11 other Pacific countries which would eliminate over 18,000 tariffs, has faced widespread bipartisan skepticism. The battle over TPP revealed deep rifts within the Democratic Party regarding global economic engagement, as lawmakers and labor unions voiced their concerns about manufacturing job losses in the United States. Republican leaders, as well, have been skeptical of the trade agreement, with House Speaker Paul Ryan saying that he has “concerns surrounding the most recent aspects of the agreement” and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell similarly stating that “serious concerns have been raised on a number of issues…this deal demands intense scrutiny.” Protectionism is an unlikely point of convergence between the two polarized parties. The last truly protectionist president of the United States was Herbert Hoover in 1929. After the damage of the 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariff, both parties committed themselves to free-trade policies as the United States emerged as a leader in the global economic recovery, focusing on multilateral negotiations and the lowering of trade barriers. But as unions and the working class began to be displaced by globalization, Democrats drifted towards policies that would protect labor, and Republicans, relying on the business community for much of their campaign funding, took up the helm of the free trade effort with other moderate Democrats. But all that has seemed to change during this election season.

Donald Trump has driven the Republican political agenda towards protectionism, attacking free trade and immigration as the prime culprit of the problems afflicting the American economy, and the people are rallying around him. Playing on America’s discomfort with globalization with his anti-immigrant and economic nationalist rhetoric, Trump has led almost continuously in nationwide polls, and the Republican Party is responding. Senator Rob Portman, a former US trade representative and a key figure of the Republican establishment, recently came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership as pressure mounts for re-election. Even Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama has said that Trump’s opposition to free trade “will grow the Republican party,” and that “now is the time for the GOP to embrace this opportunity.” Bernie Sanders, too, is an integral leader of the anti-free trade revolution we’re witnessing. Both moderate and more liberal Democrats have recently been more critical of free trade negotiations, but none have opposed it as vigorously as Sanders, who has said outright that “unfettered free trade has been a disaster for working Americans.” Faced with increasing protectionist sentiment, and the pressure to respond to critiques of being the “corporate” and “pro-establishment” candidate, even Hillary Clinton has done an about-face on her “gold-standard” position on the TPP, without specifically addressing why.

Protectionist rhetoric has been an effective political tool in Trump’s and Sanders’ arsenals, who are polling higher than anyone had previously predicted. Almost two-thirds of Americans now agree with the candidates’ protectionist views, and would prefer more restrictions on imported goods. By critiquing trade deals as working solely for corporate interests and damaging important sectors of the American working class, they’ve effectively established themselves as candidates for the working class, bridging the chasm of a polarized country. The focus on the working and middle class and the targeting of a clear source for the country’s economic woes has elicited Trump and Sanders a lot of support across the nation. The percentage of Americans that say that free trade agreements are good for the United States has dropped nearly 10 percent between 2014 and 2016.

The fundamental assumptions of neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus have been decisively rejected; open markets are no longer characterized as the source of America’s rise to global power and prosperity. Rather, protectionism and economic nationalism have seemingly become the foundation of the new American Dream, focused on working class Americans. The argument is in tandem with a broader disgruntled sentiment amongst those excluded from contemporary American progress—workers in declining trade industries, blue collar families, etc. Trump has remarked that trade deals such as the TPP are evidence of the United States losing to countries like China and Japan. To make America “win” again, he proposes tariffs and “onshoring, or ‘repatriation,’…to take back the jobs China is stealing.” Trump and Sanders promise to save American manufacturing from the jaws of outsourcing and return the Rust Belt to its rightful place as a region of prosperity and opportunity, putting forth a new path to American economic success based on keeping jobs at home. And the American public, as well as the political establishment, are slowly falling in line with them.

But although Trump’s and Sanders’ rhetoric sound incredibly similar, there is a huge difference in the policies they propose to revitalize America and save American manufacturing. Trump’s inflammatory claims and proposals have focused mostly on playing to voters’ basest fears and instincts, seeking to generate votes through a new, xenophobic economic nationalism. His plans largely revolve around excluding immigrants from the United States and “tougher negotiations” with other countries to make sure the US “wins” trade deals. Trump focuses more on manipulating racism and nationalism rather than putting forth policies that would address the structural issues of those displaced by globalization and its effects on inequality. Sanders, on the other hand, has proposed policies to increase job creation in the United States and provide more social welfare for those hurt by trade policies, through investing in infrastructure, increasing minimum wage, and expanding Social Security. Both Trump and Sanders have cast themselves as the heroes of the American working class, fighting against free trade and corporate interests, the primary enemies to economic prosperity, but their policy proposals reveal the underlying difference between the two candidates. Dramatic protectionist rhetoric may be powerful for generating support from American voters, but the American working class cannot be saved by sweeping, theatrical proposals that are primarily exclusionist and xenophobic. The harmful consequences of globalization on American manufacturing are not so easily fixed by rousing words, large walls, and steep tariffs. An America driven into isolation by fear of globalization does not seem like a “winning” America. Sanders and Trump have rightfully identified the pitfalls of free trade, and they’ve effectively galvanized the people around their cause. What is needed now are policies that will offer thicker social protection for those displaced by globalization, not empty rhetoric.


About the Author

Katherine Chin '19 is a Culture Section Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.