Why Americans are turning against free trade

These are responses that cause economists to roll their eyes. But most of us aren’t economists. We know what we experience—and what most Americans have experienced are many more foreign products on their shelves, a half-decade of weak job growth for Americans, and stagnating or declining living standards for all but the wealthiest.

Economic and political leaders can argue that the nation’s economic troubles are not traceable to free trade—that Americans would have been even worse off if they reverted to protectionism. The trouble is that Americans no longer trust their leaders. If polls can be relied upon, trust in leaders and institutions has plunged to the lowest levels ever recorded, lower even than during the dismal days of the mid-1970s.

The belief that the economic system is rigged in favor of the wealthy and that ordinary people can no longer get ahead run is especially intense. Americans increasingly perceive the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer. Their view of business corporations has turned especially hostile, very nearly as hostile as their view of government.