This is … not what I would have expected from a country that just elected a protectionist, who spent part of the campaign fantasizing about 45 percent tariffs on China. If I had to explain it, though, I would have guessed that there was an enormous “Trump effect” on the left in which Democrats, knowing that Trump is a harsh critic of foreign trade deals and feeling reflexively opposed to pretty much anything he supports, would have reacted to a poll like this by overwhelmingly embracing trade as an “opportunity” rather than a “threat.” The result, in other words, has less to do with honest opinions about trade than it does about Democratic disgust with Trump.
Or so I would have guessed. But I would have been wrong — or half-wrong.
Democratic support for foreign trade is way, way up since last year, just as you’d expect from the party’s current “everything Trump likes is bad!” posture — but support among Republicans is up too, almost as much as it is among Dems. (Support among indies is also up, although more modestly.) What gives? Why hasn’t Trumpmania on the right bred more suspicion that foreign trade is a threat rather than an opportunity?
Gallup floats a theory:
Foreign trade was a major theme of the 2016 presidential election, with Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders having denounced trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. However, rather than rejecting agreements like these outright, President Trump has promised to replace multinational agreements such as the TPP with bilateral deals on more favorable terms for the U.S. This reasoning may help explain why more Americans now see trade as a mechanism for economic growth.
They’re on the right track but I wouldn’t formulate it quite the same way. What you’re seeing among Republicans, I think, is a more basic phenomenon of viewing everything the federal government does more favorably when your guy is in charge of it. Case in point:
That’s some leap in a single year, but it makes sense as a vote of confidence in Trump: It’s not so much that the economy has improved overnight as faith that the economy will begin to improve now that Republican policies are steering the ship of state. The same probably holds for right-wing views of foreign trade. GOP support for foreign trade was middling last year because it was, after all, Barack Obama who was in charge of bargaining for the United States. A lot of criticism was heaped on TPP, which Trump vowed to abandon. Now that he has, and now that the nationalist who wrote “The Art of the Deal” is at the table negotiating with foreign nations, Republicans feel more confident that foreign trade will benefit them — that it’ll be an “opportunity” going forward, including an opportunity to repatriate jobs. The interesting thing about the poll is that, for once, you might not be seeing mirror-image partisan reasoning among Democrats in which their views of trade turn negative because suddenly Trump is in charge of it. My guess, as noted, is that they’re embracing foreign trade partially because they know Trump is skeptical of it. Although of course it may be that even many blue-collar Democrats prefer Trump to Obama on trade because he’s made such a show of reducing outsourcing. (Democrats have been more supportive of free trade than Republicans have for years now.) A president who makes noise about bringing back the jobs may simply enjoy more confidence on trade across all parties. Which would explain why the numbers among independents are up too.
Whatever the answer, the effect has been dramatic. Since 1993, the share of Americans who viewed foreign trade as an “opportunity” had never grown higher than 58 percent and the share who viewed it as a “threat” had never dropped below 34 percent. Today those numbers are 72 and 23, respectively. Wow.