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Why Donald Trump’s move to end the Trans-Pacific Partnership is so hugely symbolic

President Trump signed an executive order formally withdrawing the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. (Video: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

A Republican president signed an executive order getting rid of a free trade deal on Monday.

That is a sentence that seemed hugely unlikely just two short years ago. Free trade, after all, has been a hallmark of the pro-free market and pro-business Republican Party. When these free trade agreements have drawn opposition, it's generally been Democrats leading the charge.

But when President Trump signed the executive order ending U.S. participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Monday, he was doing something that was hugely important to his most ardent supporters. And he was solidifying a very big shift in the Republican Party that arguably delivered Trump the presidency.

It was Trump's appeal to white working-class voters in the Midwest and Rust Belt, after all, that appeared to put him over the top. His surprise, narrow victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin all seemed to rely on this key demographic. It's a demographic Republicans haven't always been able to count on. But Trump changed that in 2016, and it stands to reason that his opposition to free trade was a big reason why.

Those white working-class voters have come to strongly oppose free trade agreements. A 2016 Public Religion Research Institute survey found Americans were more anti-free trade than pro-free trade, with 50 percent believing the agreements are mostly harmful because jobs go overseas and wages are depressed.

Among the white working class, it was much more pronounced, with 60 percent believing free trade deals were harmful and just 33 percent saying they were helpful.

And if you go back further, it's logical to assume that Trump brought some voters into the GOP fold with the aid of his anti-free-trade stand. PRRI and the Brookings Institution conducted a poll when Trump was still the presumptive GOP nominee but before the conventions. They found at the time that Republicans as a whole opposed free trade 60 to 35 percent. But among Trump supporters, it was 69-27.

Democrats, meanwhile, were about evenly split.

This, as mentioned above, marks a big shift from where the official Republican Party has been for years. And it means that, in keeping a major campaign promise on Monday, Trump was paying it forward for the people who elected him.