Opinion writer

So you think Donald Trump’s demagoguery on immigration has created problems for the other GOP candidates? Well, another very ripe opportunity for Trump to make his GOP rivals even more miserable may be lurking right around the corner, and it could expose the same sort of schism between GOP elites and GOP voters that Trump’s forays into immigration policy have.

I’m talking about the massive global trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Some time in the next six months — in late 2015 or in early 2016 — the participating nations may finally reach a deal on the TPP. That may well come just when the GOP primaries are heating up.

Virtually all of the major GOP presidential candidates, including Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio, all support the TPP, as do Republican Congressional leaders.

But, in a little noticed move a few days ago, Trump signaled that he might be headed in a very different direction on the TPP soon enough. After his terrific and wonderful rally outside the Capitol the other day, Trump met with Senator Jeff Sessions, and both men enthusiastically recounted that they had had a good conversation about immigration and …. trade. Said Trump: “The meeting was great!”

Sessions is a leading opponent of the TPP. He has warned that the TPP could harm American workers and allow China to join the deal later without the approval of the U.S. Congress; he has also said that it won’t do anything to counter Chinese currency manipulation and could facilitate the flow of “foreign workers” into the United States.

Trump himself railed against the TPP last June, also warning that Obama would later let China get onto the deal through the back door (because he’s weak) and more generally arguing that the TPP would make it easier for China to continue feasting out of American workers’ lunch buckets.

In other words, the coming debate over the TPP gives Trump the perfect opportunity to do what he’s already been doing to great effect: test the true nature of opinion among rank-and-file Republican voters, by forcing real debates out into the open on issues that had previously remained deliberately vague or walled off from real discussion by GOP orthodoxy.

Trump has openly called for mass deportations, forcing some of his GOP rivals to openly debate what should happen to the 11 million and revealing in very raw terms the differences between GOP voters and elites on the issue. Trump has called for hiking capital gains taxes, raising the question of whether GOP voters really support GOP dogma on tax cuts for the rich. Trump’s vow not to cut Social Security benefits — when party orthodoxy requires a devotion to cutting entitlements — has also played a similar role.

The TPP seems like the perfect opening for Trump to turn up the volume on his particular strain of right wing populism, which includes harmonies such as the promise of protectionism for American workers to “make America great” at a time when they are threatened by immigrants, China, and shadowy global elites. With other GOP candidates backing the TPP, this could provide another test of whether GOP voter opinion really is aligned with GOP elite opinion, this time on free trade.

This is also a ripe one for Trump because he’s a billionaire, which means he’ll have some measure of economic credibility among Republican voters. The other day, reflecting on the possibility that Marco Rubio (who supports eliminating capital gains taxes) might get into a brawl with Trump (who would raise them), Brian Beutler suggested: “Trump would love nothing more than for a career elected official like Rubio to lecture him about the impact tax rates have on investment and growth.”

Trump would probably love it if the career politicians he’s facing off against lecture him about the impact that global free trade has on the fortunes of American workers, too. Fun times ahead!