(Evan Vucci/AP)
Opinion writer

This is the week that the broad outlines of President Trump’s reelection strategy are coming into focus. Trump will continue pushing forward with his reactionary xenophobic nationalist agenda on immigration, while executing a massive but largely phony pivot back to the pro-worker economic populism he immediately abandoned upon taking office.

But Democrats and progressives believe they may have found a way to unmask that sham populist pivot. And their developing counterargument involves not one, but two, of the issues on which Trump will build his case for reelection: prescription drugs and trade.

This counterargument surfaced almost by surprise in a series of focus groups recently conducted in the industrial Midwest by veteran Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, for the trade watchdog group Public Citizen. Greenberg outlined his findings in a memo that was shared with this blog.

Specifically, Greenberg found that working-class white voters who switched from Barack Obama to Trump are deeply angry about soaring prescription drug prices. As a result, they vehemently oppose a key provision benefiting Big Pharma at the core of Trump’s renegotiation of NAFTA — which he touts as proof that he’s delivering for his working-class white base.

The stakes are high. Trump’s hopes for a political rebound turn partly on trade and prescription drug pricing. In his State of the Union speech, both received prominent billing. Trump called on Congress to pass his renegotiation of NAFTA, claiming it will revive manufacturing and even naming specific states crucial to Trump’s reelection, like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, Trump also vowed that it would be a “major priority” for him to “lower the cost of health care and prescription drugs.” This, and Trump’s call for major new infrastructure spending, constitutes a pivot back to his 2016 economic populism after having gone all in with GOP plutocracy as president.

But it turns out that trade and prescription drug pricing are linked — and not in a good way for Trump.

What Democratic focus groups found

In December, Greenberg conducted focus groups among working-class white Obama-Trump voters in Macomb County, Mich., and Oak Creek, Wis., to gauge public attitudes toward Trump’s NAFTA renegotiation, which was completed last fall.

The most striking finding, according to Greenberg’s memo, was that arguments about the Big Pharma provision were “game changing.”

Trump’s renegotiated NAFTA does accomplish some things progressives and Democrats support, such as mandates for higher wages on auto workers and an end to a dispute resolution mechanism favoring capital. But the rewrite also expands patent protections for some pharmaceutical drugs to 10 years, shielding them from generic competition.

That’s why many Democrats are now vowing not to pass it without big changes. As Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) put it, the new NAFTA is “stuffed with handouts that will let big drug companies lock in the high prices they charge for many drugs,” gouging “seniors and anyone else who needs access to life-saving medicine.”

Working-class whites in Greenberg’s focus groups apparently agreed. As his memo notes, these voters “hate” pharmaceutical companies and are deeply convinced that high drug prices are the result of their political influence.

In effect, Greenberg concluded, this debate links corporate power directly to soaring medical costs, providing a gateway to a larger argument about the ability of big corporations to rig market rules in their favor. These voters, Greenberg noted, “especially distrust the way that corporations bend the system to their will,” with lobbyists and big campaign donations, “so that they can earn more profits while hurting workers and consumers.” As one Macomb man put it: “They are buying their laws, basically.”

Greenberg was surprised by the depth of emotion about pharmaceutical companies and drug prices, noting that they “emerged as an extraordinary point of anger.” The result: Pointing to the Big Pharma provision constitutes the “single most powerful argument” against Trump’s NAFTA rewrite.

Why this might matter

Obviously, this particular argument, by itself, is only one among a multitude against Trump. But this could prove significant nonetheless. If this provision is this unpopular, it provides a weapon for Democrats to force Trump to accept big progressive changes to the NAFTA renegotiation. And this is going to be a major battle soon enough.

This also underscores how politically important — and treacherous — the broader issue of prescription drug prices could prove. Democrats are pushing forward multiple policies to reduce those prices — a goal that has bipartisan support — and one key policy tool is to weaken pharmaceutical patent protections.

With Trump vowing to prioritize drug prices, the fact that his NAFTA rewrite appears to benefit Big Pharma provides an entry point for a much broader argument against him.

Trump campaigned on the idea that the economy and political system are “rigged” for the rich. But as president, Trump enthusiastically embraced plutocratic GOP economic orthodoxy, with massive corporate tax cuts and a deregulation rampage benefiting actors such as predatory lenders. Trump, if anything, further rigged the system for the wealthy, and his emphasis on infrastructure, drug pricing and trade is an effort to achieve distance from that GOP orthodoxy and revive that 2016 economic populist magic.

But Trump’s actual record gives Democrats a major opening to campaign on a progressive unrigging of our political economy, with proposals such as revived antitrust, corporate governance reform, a more progressive tax code — and a more progressive NAFTA rewrite, with tougher enforcement of labor standards and no Big Pharma giveaway.

The coming trade and drug pricing debate provides an opening to press that argument. Indeed, while Greenberg found a fair amount of trust in Trump on trade, his memo notes that the “message framework” on NAFTA and drug prices reinforced a creeping “doubt” about Trump among some of these voters that he is “looking out for rich CEOs and business executives like himself.”

In other words, they may be open to the argument that Trump is helping them further rig the system — and that his vow to take on powerful, entrenched corporate and financial interests turned out to be nothing but a big scam.

Read more:

Elizabeth Warren: It’s time to let the government manufacture generic drugs

Dana Goldman and Anupam Jena: Surprise! Trump might actually lower drug prices.

Ezekiel Emanuel: The Trump administration’s latest plan to lower drug prices is hollow — and maybe counterproductive

Megan McArdle: Why baby steps toward cheaper drugs are the best we can do