There are many theories about why Donald Trump has gotten so far in the Republican primaries, and most any sensible analysis has to credit the reality that Trump’s rise is not the result of one single factor but the confluence of a series of factors ranging from the media environment to angst over immigration.
But one factor that has clearly been enormously important in separating Trump from his Republican competitors and drawing new voters into the process is his confrontational, China-bashing rhetoric on trade. Which brings to mind a question Republicans and conservatives should be asking: how did we miss this?
Immigration, after all, is an issue essentially everyone saw coming; whether or not you anticipated how it would play out, we’ve had fights over immigration in the 2008 and 2012 primaries and in numerous statewide races the pasts decade, and it was entirely predictable that there would be another one in 2016. While the arguments have been a bit different this time, you didn’t need to get out much in conservative media to hear the familiar rhetorical battle lines being drawn.
But if you surveyed the landscape of politicians, political insiders and consultants, pundits and talk radio hosts in the spring of 2015, I’d wager that almost nobody had trade on their list of the top handful of likely issues in this race, let alone an issue that could potentially reshape the entire coalition and platform of the Republican Party. For policy-oriented writers, that may be an understandable omission: nearly everyone in the GOP and the conservative sphere at large agrees that free trade is a major net benefit to the country, to consumers, and to most workers, and so people are loath to openly argue that Republicans should adopt or promote policies that hurt the economy just to pander for votes. Moreover, while polling on trade can be uneven and subject to the usual pitfalls of issue polling, most polls show that support for free trade is a majority position, so it would not just be pandering, but pandering to a minority, a big chunk of which consists of progressives unreachable by any Republican.
Still, as we have seen time and time again, a motivated minority with a large concentration in one political party can be a powerful force in politics. Which brings me back to the question of why, in a field with 16 other presidential candidates, nobody’s polling or grassroots instincts alerted them to the possibility that taking a harsher line on trade – especially with China – could resonate with a potentially decisive segment of primary voters. Even Ted Cruz, who shifted from his prior position in June 2015 (shortly after Trump entered the race) to turn against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, never really made it a big part of his pitch. And DC insiders were still busy trying to prop up the Export-Import Bank.
Sure, bashing trade is demagoguery in support of bad economic policy, but it may be the lesser evil to giving the nation a choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. When histories of this race are written, we may look back at the trade issue may be seen as the dog that should have barked a lot earlier.