The Damage From Free Trade Helped Elect Trump

Dave Johnson

It seems that lots of media/political/business people “on the coasts” don’t get how big a deal trade played in Tuesday’s election.

Sold On Free Trade

In the late 70s the country was told that “protectionism” is bad for the economy and was sold “free trade” as a way to bring prosperity and jobs. “Trade” in this usage meant one and only thing: close a factory here and lay off the workers. Open a factory “there” to make the same goods, bring those goods back here to sell in the same stores to the same customers. It’s called “trade” because now those goods cross a border. The “sell” was that all those laid-off workers would be “freed up” to get better jobs.

Well, they never got better jobs — those were also outsourced or privatized or relabeled as low-wage “contractors” with no protections or benefits. So instead they had their homes foreclosed, their local stores forced out of business and their downtowns boarded up. Local and state tax bases dwindled so schools became terrible, infrastructure crumbled, public services cut and cut and cut. Meanwhile the investor class that pushed this and executive class that managed it pocket the wages these regions used to generate for themselves. (They also got huge tax cuts.)

Entire Regions Bled Dry

In the decades since entire regions have been bled dry of ways to make a living, their cities and towns and downtowns left behind to crumble, their aging former factory workers scrambling for WalMart jobs and turning to opiates for relief.

Take a few days and drive around the regions once known for manufacturing or steel production. See what this kind of “free trade” has done to them,

As you drive from town to town in Michigan and Ohio you see one after another a ring of the “big box” stores and national chain stores around each city. You also see the “brownfields” of rusted-out, closed factories, empty, falling-down buildings. Then you go to the downtown and you see boarded up houses, empty storefronts, deteriorating and deteriorated communities, idle people standing on corners. As you drive into these towns you can just see what is happening in a nutshell.

Bled dry. First by “trade,” then by Wall Street-owned chains and banks then by the Wall Street collapse that sucked away the remaining assets. And then Wall Street got bailed out by their taxes but they didn’t. These regions never got any help from the government, even as they watched the Wall Street types and executives and coastal elites living it up — on their money.

Wall Street was bailed out. But for decades this country allowed entire regions and populations to deteriorate and die, and inequality to soar, and didn’t do a thing about it. No one fixed it.

“I Alone Can Fix It”

Tuesday a lot of righteously angry people with nowhere else to turn got fed up, took things into their own hands and voted for the lying, insulting, women-groping demagogue who promised that he and he alone can fix it. “I am your voice … I alone can fix it.”

Pick a former manufacturing area, and look at how that area voted in Tuesday’s election. Key “swing” states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin were hit hard by deindustrialization and little to nothing was done to help the people there. And they voted for Donald Trump because he promised to “fix” it.

Trade Mattered Where The Votes Mattered Most

Andrew Flowers, writing at the FiveThirtyEight polling analysis site in Might Chinese Trade Explain Trump’s Success?

Recent research has indicated that trade with China has been more disruptive than previously thought. MIT economist David Autor and co-authors have documented how rising Chinese imports wreaked havoc on competing U.S. industries. In total, their research found the surge of Chinese trade was responsible for the loss of more than 2 million jobs between 1999 and 2011. But, interestingly — and this is where Trump’s electoral map comes in — it had a concentrated geographic impact. States in the Midwest, Appalachia and the Southeast were where Chinese trade hit hardest. Take a look at these maps showing where the U.S. industries were most exposed…

Click through to see the maps. Flowers then explains, “At first look, this map sort of overlaps with Trump’s success. He has won or is currently leading in several manufacturing-heavy Midwestern states; anti-trade sentiment is rife there.”

Exit polling drives this home. CNN’s exit polls, for example, tell the story:

Rust belt states agree with Trump that trade costs jobs

Donald Trump made trade a key message in his campaign. He promised to bring back the manufacturing jobs that he said were lost to trade deals.

Large shares of voters in key rust belt states key to Hillary Clinton’s electoral map agreed with Trump’s view that trade agreements have hurt American workers. And they overwhelmingly supported the billionaire businessman at the ballot box.

Half of Michigan’s electorate feel trade takes away jobs, and these folks supported Trump by a 57% to 36% split. The 31% who think it creates jobs backed Clinton by a 65% to 31% margin.

In Ohio, 47% of voters say trade hurts workers, and they lined up for Trump by a more than 2-to-1 margin. The 46% who say it creates jobs or has no effect strongly backed Clinton.

And in Pennsylvania, 53% of the electorate agree that trade is bad for jobs. Some 62% supported Trump, while 34% backed Clinton. Among the 35% who feel trade is a job creator, Clinton was the favored candidate by more than a 2-to-1 margin.

Trump Talked Trade From The First Day To The Last

Trump saw this and used it to propel his candidacy. Trump’s very first speech, announcing his candidacy, talked about trade — a lot.

“That’s right – a lot of people up there can’t get jobs. They can’t get jobs because there are no jobs because China has our jobs and Mexico has our jobs. They all have our jobs.

[. . .] I’m going to tell you a couple of stories about trade, because I’m totally against the trade bill for a number of reasons.

… Free trade can be wonderful if you have smart people. But we have people that are stupid. We have people that aren’t smart, and we have people that are controlled by special interests and it’s just not going to work.

He went on to tell those stories. And more. There’s much, much more about trade in that first speech. From that moment on in his campaign, he continued to talk about trade, in almost every speech, in the debates, and then in his final “closing argument.”

Trump’s final ad displays a picture of Bill Clinton and the word NAFTA as Trump says, “The political establishment that is trying to stop us is the same group responsible for our disastrous trade deals…” Then, as a deserted factory is displayed:

“The political establishment is responsible for the destruction of our factories and our jobs as they flee to Mexico, China and other countries all around the world. The global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.”

There’s no question about it: Trump used trade to propel himself to power.

Not Just Trump And Not Just Here

This is going on around the world. Elite “neoliberal” economic policies are driving inequality while wiping out the middle class and entire regions. Right-wing politicians are taking advantage of the distress and offering scapegoats, using xenophobia and racism to gain political power — just like Trump did.

Trump’s surprise win echoes the surprise win of Brexit — Britain’s vote to exit from the European Union. That vote was driven largely by the economic damage that EU’s open border and free trade policies were doing to the British working-class.

Glenn Greenwald writes about this at the Intercept, in Democrats, Trump, and the Ongoing, Dangerous Refusal to Learn the Lesson of Brexit,

The indisputable fact is that prevailing institutions of authority in the West, for decades, have relentlessly and with complete indifference stomped on the economic welfare and social security of hundreds of millions of people. While elite circles gorged themselves on globalism, free trade, Wall Street casino-gambling, and endless wars (wars that enriched the perpetrators and sent the poorest and most marginalized to bear all their burdens), they completely ignored the victims of their gluttony, except when those victims piped up a bit too much — when they caused a ruckus — and were then scornfully condemned as troglodytes who were the deserved losers in the glorious, global game of meritocracy.

That message was heard loud and clear. The institutions and elite factions that have spent years mocking, maligning, and pillaging large portions of the population — all while compiling their own long record of failure and corruption and destruction — are now shocked that their dictates and decrees go unheeded. But human beings are not going to follow and obey the exact people they most blame for their suffering. They’re going to do exactly the opposite: purposely defy them and try to impose punishment in retaliation. Their instruments for retaliation are Brexit and Trump. Those are their agents, dispatched on a mission of destruction: aimed at a system and culture that they regard, not without reason, as rife with corruption and, above all else, contempt for them and their welfare.

As Abraham Lincoln once said, You can ignore the economic damage that neoliberal economic and trade policies are doing to all the people some of the time, and ignore the economic damage that neoliberal economic and trade policies are doing to some of the people all the time, but you cannot ignore the economic damage that neoliberal economic and trade policies are doing to all the people all of the time.

And here we are, with Trump soon to become President of the United States. Great. Just great.

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