The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump’s opposition to free trade is savvy — and a sign of a how he’s changing the GOP

Trump speaks at an event in New Hampshire earlier this month. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

If you ask the Chamber of Commerce, international trade agreements are about the best possible way to "create good jobs at home, help small businesses, expand consumer choices, and improve American competitiveness." The chamber strongly advocates for trade agreements because its members benefit from new markets and new access to overseas production.

For years, the leadership of both political parties has concurred, accepting the argument that the long-term economic benefits for the country outnumbered the short-term drawbacks. Republican leaders in particular have championed free trade as a policy proposal. The 2012 Republican party platform explicitly hails the value of free trade agreements and criticizes President Obama for his "slowness" in adopting new deals. (The Democrats' platform is more circumspect, focusing on worker protections in potential agreements.)

That 2012 GOP platform came from the party of Mitt Romney. Now it's the party of Donald Trump -- and Trump expresses no patience for these trade deals whatsoever.

In a speech on Tuesday, Trump blamed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) adopted under Bill Clinton for the "catastrophe" that was the loss of American manufacturing jobs. He called the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) -- advocated for by name in the Democratic platform four years ago -- "the death blow" for manufacturing in this country.

That hard line prompted real-time rebuttals from the chamber's Twitter account.

Needless to say, this not the territory in which the Republican-friendly chamber normally finds itself. But that's because the Chamber is on the wrong side of the issue -- at least politically.

Last week, the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution released the results of an annual survey that included questions on trade. A majority of Americans said that free trade agreements were more harmful than helpful -- including 69 percent of Trump supporters.

In 2009, Pew Research asked a similar question: Do free trade agreements make the American economy grow, slow the economy down, or not make a difference? Forty-two percent said the agreements slow the economy down -- with pluralities from each party choosing that option over "make the economy grow." Among Republicans, nearly half chose the more negative option -- the highest of any partisan group.

What's interesting is that Republicans are now the most skeptical of trade agreements -- but they didn't used to be. Gallup's surveys on the topic ask if people see foreign trade more as an opportunity or a threat. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said that they saw it as more of an opportunity when asked in February of this year. But that figure was powered by positive attitudes from Democrats and independents. Those two groups used to be much more skeptical of trade deals -- before Obama took office. Since, they've become much more enthusiastic, while Republicans have remained more wary.

Gallup still has about half of Trump's party viewing trade as an opportunity, but when the questions are more specific (as in the PRRI/Brookings survey), members of the party are much more skeptical.

Donald Trump's ascent in the Republican primary contest was, in part, a function of his willingness to buck his party's orthodoxy -- an orthodoxy that, as on immigration, was often out of step with Republican voters. Trump's embrace of anti-free trade rhetoric is so politically potent that the Hillary Clinton campaign's own economic policy adviser accused him of "taking right from [Clinton]'s playbook on trade."

Clinton's playbook, of course, was annotated and revised over the course of the Democratic primary, as Bernie Sanders and his supporters pushed Clinton to take a more liberal position on trade issues. Which only reinforces the broader point: Trump's core position on trade (if not any of his less secure tangents) is what voters hope to hear.

And Trump offered that message in the right place. From PRRI's report:

Americans living in the Midwest are the most dubious about the benefits of free trade agreements. Close to six in ten (57%) Midwesterners say free trade agreements are mostly harmful because they send jobs overseas and drive down wages; only 36% say these agreements are generally helpful.

Pennsylvania isn't the Midwest, but the overlap of Pittsburgh's Rust Belt remnants and states to the west is obvious.

What the Chamber of Commerce has relied on over the years has been political leaders who are willing to weather the appearance -- and fact -- of job losses for a long-term economic gain. That was bolstered by general consensus about the issue on Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Donald Trump is not that kind of Republican.