The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The populist revolt against trade liberalization is over. Trump killed it.

Americans love trade as never before. Why?

Traders work the floor of the open outcry pit at the London Metal Exchange on Wednesday. (Simon Dawson/Bloomberg News)

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been deeply skeptical of the Trump administration’s approach to trade. And though it is always tough for the staff to admit error, as the boss, I must admit that there was one area where I underestimated Trump’s positive effect on trade.

I mistakenly presumed that Trump’s repeated use of the bully pulpit would cause Americans to turn against trade liberalization. The populist revolt against international trade has been an underlying narrative that allegedly helped Donald Trump win the 2016 election by minus 3 million votes or something. The point is, as president, Trump has repeatedly railed against existing trade deals such as NAFTA. One would have thought he would have persuaded some folks of the merits of his case.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has completed its 2018 survey on American attitudes toward trade (full disclosure: I serve on board of advisers for the Chicago Council survey), and a funny thing happened to U.S. opinions on the subject. As Dina Smeltz and Craig Kafura write in their latest policy brief, Americans love trade way more than they love Trump:

While recent polls show that American views of President Trump’s performance on trade are divided along partisan affiliations, the just-completed 2018 Chicago Council Survey finds that the largest majorities of Americans yet recorded say that trade is good for the US economy, US consumers, and US job creation. In addition, a growing majority believe that NAFTA is good for the US economy, and six in ten approve of US participation in a renewed Trans-Pacific trade agreement.
The highest percentages ever registered in this survey (since 2004) say that trade is good for the US economy (82%), good for consumers like you (85%), and good for creating jobs in the US (67%).

These findings are consistent with other recent surveys showing popular enthusiasm for trade and inconsistent with the pundit narrative about American hostility toward it. The question is: What is driving it?

There is no denying that one source is pure partisanship. The group with the most hostility to Trump — Democrats — is also the most enthusiastic about trade now. But the recent boost is more complicated than that. As Smeltz and Kafura note, “The overall increases in positive views of trade are driven by double-digit increases among Republicans and Independents, as well as slight increases among Democrats, who already held broadly positive views of trade.” In other words, Trump opponents like trade because he does not, and Trump supporters like trade because they like him as America’s trade negotiator.

Still, partisanship is not the only driver at work here. When asked about specific trade deals that Trump has lambasted, the American people are pretty enthusiastic about them:

Today, 63 percent of Americans say NAFTA is mostly good for the US economy, up from 53 percent in 2017, and an all-time high since the Chicago Council Survey first asked this question in 2008. Democratic support for NAFTA has risen from 71 percent to 79 percent over the past year. During the same time frame, positive views of NAFTA among Independents have also risen sharply, with a majority of Independents now saying it is mostly good (62%). 
While Republicans are still more likely to say that NAFTA is mostly bad (53%) than good (43%), their views have become more positive since last year. In fact, a majority of non-Trump Republicans are positive toward NAFTA (61% good), while Trump Republicans—those with a very favorable view of President Trump—hold far more negative views (68% bad, 30% good).

The survey also finds renewed support for the United States joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership and diminished concern about the size of America’s trade deficit. In each of these questions, the only group that supports the Trumpist position is Republicans who strongly support the president; other Republicans act like Democrats and independents on this issue. And the polling on this issue matches others (alliances, immigration), in that the longer Trump is president, the less popular support there is for his actions.

A lack of popular support will not stop the Trump administration from launching costly and unending trade wars. But anyone who tells you that these moves are popular is lying. It is almost as if Donald Trump, despite his bully pulpit, has lost the argument on trade. And lost badly.