Do Progressives Really Want to Follow Trump on Trade?

Do Progressives Really Want to Follow Trump on Trade?
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Do Progressives Really Want to Follow Trump on Trade?
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
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For the populist left, the one silver lining of Donald Trump’s election victory was the defeat of what had been a bipartisan “Washington consensus” supportive of unfettered globalization and ever-expanding international trade.  Now that President Trump is following through on his campaign pledges to get tough with China and renegotiate NAFTA, it’s gut-check time. Are progressives who have resisted nearly every aspect of the Trump agenda prepared to stand with him on trade?

So far the answer is, mostly, yes. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a critic of NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, effusively praised Trump’s most recent tariffs targeting Chinese goods. “I want to give him a big pat on the back,” Schumer said. “I have called for such action for years and been disappointed by the inactions of both President Bush and Obama.” This sentiment was echoed by Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who is running for re-election in a state Trump carried and who is a longtime trade populist. Referring to Trump’s earlier announcement on steel and aluminum tariffs, Brown said, “I wanted him to be aggressive and he was aggressive.” Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, Brown’s Rust Belt neighbor, similarly pronounced himself “happy.”

America’s most prominent progressive populists, and presumed 2020 presidential candidates, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, were a tick less enthusiastic, though generally supportive of Trump’s protectionist direction. Appearing last month on CNN, Warren said, “When President Trump says he's putting tariffs on the table, I think tariffs are one part of reworking our trade policy overall.” Stopping just short of endorsing Trump’s particulars, Sanders told the Daily Beast: “Trump is identifying a problem. Certainly China’s role in dumping an enormous amount of steel … has to be dealt with. In my view, though, what you need is a comprehensive, a more comprehensive approach than Trump is laying out.”

The risk for Warren and Sanders is that a little symbolic distance may not be sufficient if Trump’s tariffs become reviled and the entire concept of protectionism becomes discredited. Already, a bloc of critics is resisting the president’s burgeoning trade war: not Trump-haters, but farm-staters. And Democrats from those states are starting to get the message.

Missouri produces soybeans and pork, which are now being targeted by China in retaliation for the announced tariffs. So while Sen. Claire McCaskill is acutely aware she needs to woo Trump supporters to win re-election in the Show Me State this year, she did not hesitate to criticize Trump’s strategy because “our agriculture producers and manufacturers need stable, consistent leadership when it comes to negotiating those deals, and I agree with my Republican colleagues who’ve said the administration needs to scale back this escalating situation.”

Another red state Democrat in an uphill re-election fight, Montana’s Jon Tester, slammed the tariffs in an interview with North Dakota radio host Joel Heitkamp (who happens to be the brother of Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp). “These tariffs are punching us right in the nose,” Heitkamp informed Tester, speaking for many anxious farmers. The senator, also a farmer, readily agreed, “There’s always retaliation and ag products are always the first thing that countries retaliate on.”

For the 2018 midterm elections, it won’t be too difficult for manufacturing-state Democrats to take one position and farm-state Democrats to take another. But 2020 will be a different story. The party’s presidential nominee will have to take a stand, and that stand will go a long way toward defining the direction of the Democratic Party in the post-Obama era.

Politically speaking, which way to go is not an easy call. Should Democrats lean toward Rust Belt swing voters who want to see something, anything, done to defend their home industries? Or should they anticipate that Trump’s policies will lead to weaker exports, higher consumer prices and economic instability, turning most everyone else sour on protectionism?

Hampering any calculation is  uncertainty over whether the administration and the Chinese regime are going to follow through with their trade war threats -- or pull back after negotiations -- let alone whether Trump will take the more dramatic step of pulling the United States out of NAFTA. There is also the risk of overstating the immediate consequences of a trade war, and falsely predicting calamities that don’t come to pass.

But I would argue two things are relatively safe bets. One, Trump’s strategy won’t succeed in bringing back large numbers of manufacturing jobs to America. That ship has sailed. Two, Trump’s belligerent and chaotic approach to international trade negotiations will continue to inject considerable uncertainty into Wall Street and various industrial sectors, rattling markets, farmers, business owners, stockholders, and consumers.

Therefore, Democrats should not approach 2020 like it’s 2016 all over again. By the tail end of the Obama presidency, we had experienced a long line of presidents from both parties who sounded like trade populists on the campaign trail then governed as free traders. The status quo on trade, rightly or wrongly, became a scapegoat for America’s economic ills among grassroots voters on both the left and the right. That made it nearly impossible to defend painstakingly negotiated trade compromises like the Trade-Pacific Partnership, which, while imperfect, may still have been preferable to the current situation, where the rest of America’s negotiating partners move ahead without us.

The next presidential election will be a referendum on a completely different president. While we can’t know how far Trump will eventually go on trade, he certainly will not follow in the footsteps of his predecessors.

Populist progressives need not abandon their goals of higher wages, expansive worker rights, and strong environmental standards. But after seeing how crude protectionist nationalism is failing to advance those goals, they may want to start rethinking their support for higher tariffs and skepticism of multilateral trade deals. In what will be a crowded Democratic presidential primary field, those candidates stuck in 2016 might get eclipsed by those more willing to take Trump to task for the policies of today.

Bill Scher is a contributing editor to Politico Magazine, co-host of the show “The DMZ,” and host of the podcast “New Books in Politics.” He can be reached at or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.

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