Does Trump, Sanders rise signal the end of free trade in American politics?

posted at 6:01 pm on March 10, 2016 by Ed Morrissey

How, exactly, did Hillary Clinton blow a 21-point polling lead in Michigan to Bernie Sanders? A late attack on Sanders may have backfired, according to Esquire and the Detroit Free Press. And the conclusions reached may have widespread implications for American policy in this new era of populist uprising. Hillary alleged that Sanders opposed the automaker bailout, but the actual truth made Hillary look far worse — and voters there knew it, Charles Pierce wrote:

During Sunday night’s debate, HRC hit Bernie Sanders with something of a cheap shot—David Axelrod’s term, and mine—regarding the auto bailout. (In merciful brief, Sanders supported a bill bailing out the auto industry as a stand-alone measure. The auto bailout eventually got folded into the release of the second part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program and Sanders voted against that, on the grounds that the Wall Street bailout included in the TARP program lacked sufficient government oversight, which it did.) At the time, the argument was considered something of a well-timed coup for the Clinton campaign, blunting Sanders’ ferocious attacks on Clinton-era trade policies.

But, as I talked to more and more people around Flint, I got the sense that the resonance of the exchange was not what HRC and her campaign thought it would be. The UAW members I talked to clearly considered HRC’s use of the auto bailout against Sanders to be at best a half-truth, and a cynical attempt to win their support, and they were offended by what they saw as a glib attempt to turn the state’s economic devastation into a campaign weapon. These were people who watched the auto industry flee this city and this state, and they knew full well how close the country’s remaining auto industry came to falling apart completely in 2008 and 2009. They knew this issue because they’d lived it, and they saw through what the HRC campaign was trying to do with the issue. I have no data to support how decisive this feeling was in Tuesday night’s returns, but it seems to me to be one of the more interesting examples of unintended consequences that I’d heard in a while.


That attack opened up a can of free-trade and Wall Street worms for Hillary, according to pollster Bernie Porn:

Clinton had tried to hit Sanders for what she claimed was a vote against the 2009 auto rescue, a charge he fervently denied as misrepresenting his support. But in the end, it was his claim — that Clinton had supported trade deals that hurt U.S. employment — that  resonated with voters.

“The trade issue was a late-breaking issue that not only affected the whole discourse of the campaign. I think it turned a lot of voters away from Hillary Clinton,” said Bernie Porn, president of EPIC/MRA, the Lansing-based pollster who did the poll for the Free Press and other media partners. “Even in our poll, she was not doing as well with union members.”

Not coincidentally, Donald Trump attacked free-trade deals in the aftermath of his wins on Tuesday. In my column for The Fiscal Times, I draw the conclusion that the GOP’s standing on free trade has never been more precarious, and that a decades-long consensus on that issue has fractured:

During his rambling, stream-of-consciousness remarks after the win, Trump repeatedly emphasized that our trading partners and allies take advantage of the American worker, and blamed it on the “babies” doing the negotiations for the US. “They have no fear of our government,” Trump declared. “They’re dealing with babies. … They are grandmaster players and we have people that shouldn’t be negotiating for us.”

This gets to the heart of the populist moment in the US. It goes beyond disappointment and frustration with the political institutions of our country, although it certainly includes that. Voters are not turning to Trump and Sanders only because Congress’ job approval ratings remain mired in single digits. The problem is less that of a failed system than of a rigged system, where corporations have pushed a free-trade agenda that has stalled American wage growth, led to uncontrolled immigration, and two parties who have more interest in the status quo than in the welfare of ordinary Americans. That system has set the wolves on American workers, many voters feel, and left their fate in the hands of “babies,” or worse.

That appears to be true even in the Republican Party, which has long stood for open markets and free trade as a philosophical touchstone. Trump may not do quite as well in closed primaries as he does in those contests where non-Republicans can vote, but it’s clear that most of his support comes from Republican voters, a conclusion reached by The Washington Post’s Philip Bump as well. The GOP has always had a minority contingent preaching protectionism, but in this cycle, it may have become a plurality on its way to a majority. …

The lesson this week is that voters want not just a fight, but potentially a trade war. If they can’t get that from the so-called establishment, then they’ll look to outsider populists like Trump and Sanders—hoping they can deliver on their promises. We may have reached the limits of American engagement in globalized markets, and a new era of incremental protectionism, mandated by voters who are determined to overturn all of the apple carts. Free-market conservatives may find themselves searching in vain for a chair when the music stops in a Trump-led GOP.

David Harsanyi also sees the writing on the wall, and warns what will follow:

Do you like those affordable electronic goods? You know, those giant TVs, cheap laptops, and super pocket computers you’re walking around with? The prices of tech products and services have fallen over the past decade because of many policies Trump rails against. So while a lot of Americans might like the sound of forcing Apple to assemble phones right here in the United States, how would they feel about paying $100 more (or whatever it is) every time they renewed a cell phone plan?

All you people with Samsung phones (the nation’s top seller, with a 22.5 percent of U.S. market share), can also look forward to similar costs embedded into your plans. Unless, for some reason, South Korea is granted immunity from Trump’s protectionism.

Donald Trump might be used to gold-plated phones on his private Boeing 757, but average Americans can’t afford to pay double their cell phone bill!

These price hikes extend to food and transportation — anything else you can think of.

Bad ideas seem to have a 40-year cycle in American politics; protectionism has an 80-year cycle. The utter destruction of Smoot-Hawley would be long forgotten if not for a reference in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It may take experiencing that inflationary pinch and a shortage economy to cure this particular bad idea. Even so, free-market and free-trade conservatives had better dig in for a significant time in the wilderness if Trump and Sanders conquer the two major political parties.

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