For the first time in recent memory, both major-party presidential nominees are positioning themselves against free trade. It’s perhaps the lone issue on which Donald Trump has maintained some consistency — he has long been hostile to it, and he is opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade deal President Obama struck with eleven other nations along the Pacific Rim. Few believe Hillary Clinton when she says she opposes the deal, which she once praised as the “gold standard in trade agreements,” but, as in many other instances, political necessity called for some dissembling.
More interesting than Clinton’s two-step, however, are the free-market Republicans who have come up with reasons to oppose the deal, which on the campaign trail this year has become a proxy for their broader views on free trade. While they support free trade in principle, they say, this deal does not do enough to prevent other countries, particularly China, from skirting American laws. Nonetheless, the timing is curious.
The Cincinnati Enquirer once dubbed Rob Portman, the Ohio senator who served as United States trade representative in the second George W. Bush administration, “the face of free trade.” If he was that back then, he isn’t any longer. Up for reelection this year, Portman, who has long raised concerns about China’s currency manipulation, released an anodyne statement in February announcing his opposition to the TPP because “it doesn’t provide a level playing field” for American workers. Pennsylvania senator Pat Toomey, a former president of the free-market Club for Growth, is also facing a tough reelection challenge. At the Club, Toomey introduced a congressional scorecard against which lawmakers are measured in part on their support for free-trade agreements, but last month, as he began to slip in the polls against his Democratic opponent, he too announced his opposition to the TPP because “it is not a good deal for Pennsylvania.”
In the modern era, Republicans have been friendly to free trade as a matter of principle, while Democrats, accountable to labor unions demanding protection from competition abroad, have been less so. So this sort of opposition to a major trade agreement from high-profile Republican lawmakers marks a significant break with the past.
Ronald Reagan viewed free trade as a bulwark against Communism. “The freer the flow of world trade,” he said, “the stronger the tides of human progress and peace among nations.” Donald Trump won the Republican nomination railing against globalization and blaming international trade for “moving our jobs, our wealth, and our factories to Mexico and overseas.” His success was a warning for many Republicans that the party’s base had grown increasingly hostile to trade. As he rose in the polls, many Republicans, starting with Texas senator Ted Cruz, who made an about-face on the TPP in March, have followed in Trump’s footsteps, making protectionist noises in more muted tones.
A ream of data suggests that they are responding to the sentiments of Republican voters. A survey of 7,400 registered voters conducted in May by Deep Root Analytics, the largest public poll conducted to date, found that more than half of the surveyed Republicans — 56 percent — described themselves as “anti-trade” rather than “pro-trade.” The more strongly a voter identified as a Republican, the more likely he was to express hostility to free trade: Sixty percent of “hard Republicans” opposed it, while just 28 percent expressed support for it. “Soft” Republicans opposed it by a slimmer margin, 48 to 40 percent.
Trump seems to have brought to a head some long-simmering resentments among Republican voters, and thanks to his candidacy, trade has loomed over the 2016 election in a way it hadn’t before. “This has been developing for at least 15 years,” says Deep Root Analytics CEO Brent McGoldrick. He describes the anti-trade sentiment among the Republican base as “kindling that was sitting there for somebody to light.” In a 2007 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, for example, 60 percent of Republicans said free trade had been bad for the United States. Other NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling data suggest that the trend stretches back even farther: The percentage of those who said free-trade agreements have hurt the country nearly doubled between 1999 and 2010.
Behind the political shift are demographic and economic ones. Those most likely to see free trade as a bad thing? According to the Pew Research Center, they are whites, men, and people over the age of 65. In other words, some of the groups that compose the core of the GOP and have in recent years migrated to it in increasing numbers. The blue-collar Democrats whom Reagan brought into the party, as well as many members of the tea-party movement, heralded this shift. “What we’ve seen under Trump is the consolidation of the white working class in the GOP, and those are people, particularly men, who have been most harmed by international trade competition,” says Ted Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who specializes in U.S. economic competitiveness.
And those most likely to see free trade as a boon? According to the Pew Research Center, they are Hispanics, women, blacks, and people between the ages of 18 and 29 — that is, some of the Democratic party’s core constituencies. “If you look at the demographics this election, the Democratic base is younger, it’s diverse, it’s urban,” says John Murphy, who specializes in international-trade and -investment policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And while organized labor is declining as a share of the voting public, Murphy says, “these are parts of the American population that are not threatened by trade.”
For those who believe in the merits of free trade, the collapse of support for it in Republican ranks is a troubling development. Alden points out that virtually all of the country’s major free-trade agreements have passed thanks to a relatively stable alliance between Republicans and a small but shrinking group of internationally minded Democrats. Bill Clinton signed the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement into law against overwhelming Democratic opposition, and only solid Republican support allowed the bill to make it through Congress. The same was true for the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations, which led to the creation of the World Trade Organization in 1994, and for the Central American Free Trade Agreement of 2005, among others. And even though both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton talked like protectionists on the campaign trail in 2008, Obama has been a proponent of free trade in office — much to the chagrin of the far left, whose opposition in Congress initially stymied the TPP.
It’s unclear whether the shift in the GOP ranks is permanent. Many analysts point out that the party out of power tends to inch toward protectionism regardless of the circumstances. That is, Republicans tend to support free-trade agreements when a Republican president is pushing them and to oppose them when a Democratic president is. The inverse is true of Democrats. “Fifteen to 20 percent of each party fluctuates in its support or opposition to trade,” says Scott Lincicome, an international-trade attorney and an adjunct scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute. “When Bush was president, over 50 percent of Republicans supported trade agreements and free trade. When Obama came into office, it basically flipped.”
Others argue that Trump has had a unique impact on the views of Republican voters but say that public opinion is likely to snap back once he disappears from the political scene. “GOP appetites on trade are following the outspoken voice of the party’s nominee for president,” says a top Republican strategist. “In the future, when there’s a different Republican president, if he’s not banging the drum against trade — or he’s actually promoting trade — I suspect Republican attitudes will be different than they are now.”
Such are the voices of the optimists.
Those less sanguine about the future of free trade suspect that the traditional political coalitions that have kept free trade alive for decades are on their way out. “I think it’s impossible to believe that Republican support for trade in the future is going to be anywhere near as high as it was in the past,” Alden says. “I think the only way for the next president to move forward on trade will be to construct a new coalition, because the old one has been shattered.”
If he’s right, it’s one of the most important problems free-market Republicans will have to reckon with come November.