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Thanks to Trump, More Americans Support Free Trade

Is it his bad messaging on protectionism, or his bad policies? Or both?
August 20, 2019
Thanks to Trump, More Americans Support Free Trade
Cargo ships hold shipping containers as other containers sit at the Port of Los Angeles, the nation's busiest container port. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

To hear the Trumpist right tell it, orthodox support for free trade has been holding the Republican party back for a long time. That the free market is the best tool for increasing prosperity, both in America and around the world, is supposedly one of the ossified old canards that the election of Donald Trump was going to clear away, to usher in a bright and shiny new protectionist future for the GOP. Here’s one problem, though: Two years into Donald Trump’s presidency, support for free trade has grown stronger than ever.

That’s according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll out this week, which finds that Americans now approve of free trade by a better than 2-to-1 margin, with 64 percent approving and a mere 27 percent disapproving. That number has grown since early in the Trump presidency, when the same poll found 57 percent of Americans supporting and 37 percent opposing free trade.

There are two plausible explanations for this, each presenting its own serious obstacle for the would-be mercantilists of the new right. The first is simple and political: Free trade has grown more popular and protectionism less so because a very unpopular president has styled himself a champion of protectionism and an enemy of free trade. Our politics today can often be more about personalities than policies, with voters deciding which politicians they like and trust first and working out policy preferences only later. Throw into the mix a politician as galvanizing and polarizing as Donald Trump, and the changes can be seismic.

We’ve seen exactly this scenario play out several times: public opinion veers away from a signature Trump policy proposal, even if that proposal might have enjoyed bipartisan support years prior. When congressional Democrats again refused to fund Trump’s border wall earlier this year, right-wing pundits complained they were obstructing border security measures they themselves had supported barely five years prior. But the Democrats were merely maneuvering in step with the changing national mood: national support for a border wall has fallen off a cliff in the Trump era. In 2013, nearly two-thirds of Americans supported the idea of building hundreds of miles of new barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border. These days, less than 40 percent do.

The president’s defenders may scoff at these trends—there go those goofy libs again, showing their only principle is resistance!—but they must grapple with how to raise up as their lodestar a leader whose sheer unpleasantness prejudices half the nation against any position he takes.

But the political explanation tells only part of the truth. The second explanation for why national support for free trade is growing has more to do with the actual impacts of Trump’s protectionist policies so far.

The narrative at the heart of Trump’s trade pitch, both during his campaign and since, was simple: America’s trade policy has for decades been run by dotards and simpletons who have allowed other countries to bleed us dry. All that was required was to elect a non­-dotard: Someone who would show those other countries who was boss and stop letting them get away with all that nonsense.

And it’s a money pitch, if you can get people to believe it. Who cares if it’s a basic principle of economics that free trade tends to benefit everybody involved? Nobody wants to think the wonks and eggheads know what they’re talking about; it’s easy to get people’s attention if you tell them that the game is rigged but that fixing it is easy if they’ll only give you the power to do it.

The hard part, of course, is following through. That’s certainly been Trump’s problem: Moving from the easy promises that “trade wars are good and easy to win” to the harsh reality of the current slog with China that’s crimped the U.S. economy and forced the White House to dole out hush-money payments to the hardest-hit industries, all the while insisting that the only feasible strategy is to plunge ever deeper into tariff exchanges (except when it would spoil Christmas).

It’s enough to convince a country the eggheads had it right after all.

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger was a senior writer at The Bulwark.