Trump’s rhetorical opposition to neoliberal globalization also intersected with presidential power in revealing ways. Congress narrowly passed NAFTA in 1993 (as a so-called congressional-executive agreement that does not constitutionally require a two-thirds vote), while the WTO emerged the following year when Congress approved comparable fast-track authority that effectively transferred trade policy to the president. In the intervening two decades, the executive, under Republican and Democratic control, has advanced neoliberal ideas of economic freedom until Trump. U.S. accession to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the centerpiece of Obama’s pivot to Asia, went on life support after Hillary Clinton was forced to oppose it under pressure in her campaign against Trump.
Not that Trump attempted to return any trade authority to Congress, any more than he supported war-powers reform while selectively opposing wars. But, ironically, the NAFTA reform that would never have occurred without him, and that barely rose above symbolism in real terms, garnered more support from Congress than any comparable trade deal, passing the House 385–41 and the Senate 89–10.
Trump’s record of using executive power to resist neoliberalism was uneven and should not be exaggerated. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, the mastermind of Trump’s trade policy, never stopped attacking multilateral rules and organizations as bad for American workers, and he convinced Trump to use unilateral presidential weapons aggressively against trading partners. But these moves aimed not to establish autarky but, rather, to embed free-trade principles in bilateral arrangements that Lighthizer believes better protect America’s economic interests. The Trump administration wanted “to get to the position where the U.S. is competing with countries on a bilateral basis and on a no-barrier basis, and then let the United States, let pure economics make the decision,” Lighthizer explained in 2018.