Among the many assumptions about American politics that Donald Trump has managed to upend over the past year, few have shocked Republican leaders more than the realization that the party of free trade is brimming with apostates.
For over 20 years, Republicans have provided the lion’s share of votes in the U.S. Congress to pass agreements creating the North American Free Trade Agreement, founding the World Trade Organization, and bringing China into the global system for resolving commercial disputes. And until recently, their presidential candidates brandished impeccable credentials as free traders.
In less than a year, Trump proved that running against received Republican wisdom on trade, whatever the merits of the policy, is great politics. Castigating inept negotiators for striking deals harmful to American interests might be asinine, but it helped Trump beat his Republican rivals for the presidential nomination.
What’s more, the newly reordered politics of trade will probably outlast Trump, according to Jim Kolbe, a longtime Republican congressman from Arizona whose signature issue was trade. Even if Trump loses, incumbent Republicans will still have to fear upstarts who use the trade issue against them now that he has laid bare the true preferences of rank-and-file.
“I’m not sure you can put this genie back in the bottle and say the Republican party is a free-trading party,” Kolbe said. “I don’t think anything will be quite the same on trade after this election, no matter who wins.”
Trade Deals In Trouble
The development, which gestated for years before emerging suddenly, is bound to have lasting and diverse consequences of for the politics of trade in the United States, and by extension for the fate of trade agreements envisioned by the Obama administration and the Bush administration before it. One is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was largely completed last year with 11 nations of the Pacific Rim, and the other the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, with Europe.
For the moment, Trump’s demonization of trade agreements has helped cost at least one Republican member of Congress his job in a primary, while it’s also driving others into Trump’s camp on this issue.
The Republican donor class, while unwilling to give up on trade, is plainly panicked at the prospect of a Trump-like conventional wisdom on the subject embedding itself in the party’s dogma. But Trump’s success has demonstrated a fact that will outlast the 2016 election: the trade issue can be used to defeat fellow Republicans.
Trump allies, meanwhile, are crowing at the victory that they’ve achieved already, boasting that they’ve knocked the elites off course, and in the direction of an “America-first” trade policy, said Curtis Ellis, executive director of the American Jobs Alliance.
“We have finally pierced the Washington bubble,” Ellis said. “Republicans don’t just need donations from rich people. They need votes from real people.”
Republican free-traders are howling at the way Trump has remade their party.
Bill Lane was a lobbyist for construction machinery manufacturer Caterpillar for over 20 years, and until his retirement this year the de facto dean of American industry’s free-trade contingent in Washington. A stalwart Republican, Lane recently posted on Facebook a plaintive cri de coeur for his former colleagues to speak out against Trump.
“It is time for the rest of business to stop being intimidated,” Lane wrote. “We all have stood up to bullies before. It is time to do it again.”
In political terms, trade is now a “wedge issue,” one that can drive supporters away from free-trading Republicans and into the hands of their opponents — other Republicans.
For the past 20 years, that’s been true for Democrats.
Under pressure from organized labor, environmentalists and other interest groups, fewer and fewer Democrats have been willing to vote for trade legislation, especially when taking fire from the party’s liberal wing.
Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic opponent, announced her opposition to the Asia-Pacific trade deal, which she supported as secretary of state. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, opposed trade legislation last year in an ultimately successful bid to fend off a challenge from his left for a Senate seat.
Polling Predicted It
The Republican consensus on trade was always more brittle than party leaders or the business lobby appreciated.
“The polls have suggested this trend among Republicans for a very long time,” said Mac Destler, a longtime scholar of the politics of trade at the University of Maryland. “And it throws a big monkey wrench into the politics of trade going forward.”
In February 2015, only months before Trump unleashed his scorched-earth campaign for president, a Gallup poll found that 61 percent of Democrats viewed foreign trade favorably, while a bare majority of Republicans did. Only 49 percent of Republicans viewed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Obama’s signature effort on trade, in a positive light, compared with 59 percent of Democrats, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center and the Bertelsmann Foundation.
These days, the data is even more stark.
A poll released by the Associated Press in April found that 35 percent of self-identified Republicans consider free-trade deals bad for the economy, compared to 22 percent of Democrats. In a March survey by pollster Pat Caddell, 59 percent of Republicans agreed with the notion that trade agreements benefit other countries more than the United States.
“This poll shows what I’ve intuitively felt and that is that the American people are getting more and more engaged,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, of the Caddell poll. “The trade issue is becoming a voting issue.”
Trump Recasts Rhetoric
What made the difference? In a word: leadership. Trump’s outspoken stance on trade both demonstrated the potency of the issue and stiffened the spine of like-minded Republicans to break from an orthodoxy that the Republican leadership enforced..
Trump transposed the nationalist, at times xenophobic, ethos of Republican positions on other issues, notably immigration, onto trade policy. In the past, Republicans argued that free trade was a natural outgrowth of the party’s commitment to laissez-faire economics.
With Trump as standard bearer, rhetoric on trade have become the logical outgrowth of a candidate who mistrusts, to put it mildly, foreign influences.
Congress hasn’t take a single vote on trade Trump’s meteoric rise, but that hasn’t stopped Republican candidates from putting distance between themselves and free-trade policies that they supported in the past.
Rep. Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican, voted for legislation last year authorizing Obama to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and submit it to Congress for an expedited up-or-down vote, known to critics as “fast-track authority.” Since the rise of Trump, Cramer has backed away from that stance.
“I think for a lot of us Republicans who have taken default, traditional Chamber of Commerce positions, he’s provoked some consideration of ‘Maybe it doesn’t always have to be like this,’” Cramer told The Washington Post.
Taylor Defeats Forbes
In possibly the most potent display of how the trade issue can work against mainstream Republicans, Scott Taylor defeated Rep. Randy Taylor of Virginia, in a June primary by echoing criticism of past trade deals. Taylor highlighted Forbes’ vote last year to authorize Obama to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and submit it to Congress for an expedited up-or-down vote, known to critics as “fast-track authority.”
“NAFTA has a 20-year legacy,” Taylor said during the campaign. “You see what’s right and wrong there.”
Even in places where Republican upstarts show no sign of beating establishment incumbents, Trump has laid bare a deep skepticism of the party’s traditional free-trade orthodoxy.
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, whose support for fast-track authority was essential for its passage last year, would handily win his primary, which takes place on Aug. 6, by a margin of around 70 percentage points, according to local polls. But Ryan’s personal popularity hasn’t stopped his challenger, Paul Nehlen, from highlighting local voters’ skepticism of trade deals.
A CNN exit poll after the March presidential primary in Wisconsin found that 54 percent of Republican voters believe trade agreements cost American jobs. Only 41 percent of Democrats felt the same way.
Ellis compares Trump’s success in exploiting the trade issue to the way Republicans embraced the backlash against civil rights legislation to break the Democratic grip on the southern white voters. Even losing the presidential election didn’t matter for the party’s trajectory over the next 40 years.
“There’s no going back,” Ellis said. “We have to compare this to the way Barry Goldwater took the Republican party in another direction in 1964. His defeat didn’t reverse the direction.”
Kolbe, the former Arizona congressman, doesn’t disagree that the moment is historic.
A lifelong Republican, he plans to vote for the Libertarian candidate for president, Gary Johnson. And he speaks openly of the need to re-found the Republican Party by throwing out the “xenophobes” after November, or starting, from scratch, a brand-new, pro-business, pro-immigration and, yes, free-trading, political party.