One of the oddities of the 2016 presidential campaign has been the way that Donald Trump has mangled the politics of trade.
It’s not that one can’t make a case that unrestricted free trade has hurt the U.S. economy at times — the case can be made that small towns like Hawkins, Ind., have been hurt by foreign intrusions. But despite a lot of loose talk about how this is the year of economic populism, the polling has consistently shown that populism ain’t all that popular. At best, Trump has turned the GOP against free trade, but at the cost of turning Democrats into free trade supporters. When it comes to trade, most voters are operating in the Vale of Ignorance.
Eli Stokols’s Politico story over the weekend suggests the ways in which Donald Trump seems to be operating in the world of the upside down when it comes to trade — but, just as importantly, how mainstream media coverage of this issue enables Trump to make such mistakes. Stokols’s story is not about trade, really, so much as about the difficulties the Trump campaign is facing this fall. But the relevant paragraph is telling:
Figuring out how to triage a presidential campaign when you’re bleeding in every swing state, all of which seem vital, is a difficult enough equation — and that’s without Trump spending time and resources last week in places that aren’t swing states at all. Trump sandwiched one rally in Tampa, Florida, between appearances in Texas and Mississippi, both solidly red states he’s unlikely to lose. And on Friday, his campaign announced a rally to be held Tuesday outside Seattle in Everett, Washington, home to a Boeing plant that ships planes overseas — a location that’s well suited for Trump to rail against global trade deals but makes no sense electorally.
There are two ways in which that bolded sentence makes no sense, and it’s important to recognize both of them.
The first is the “ships planes overseas” part. Maybe Trump is so used to saying things like “shipping jobs overseas” he thinks that any kind of overseas shipping must be bad. In this case, however, what’s being shipped overseas are U.S. exports, which I think even Trump might support. Indeed, Washington is America’s most trade-dependent state, and exports have been good for the local economy. Trump’s China-bashing is not going to play well in a state that has felt the economic chill from Sino-American trade tensions. I don’t think even Trump would be so ignorant as to bash U.S. exports, but I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.
The second problem with that paragraph, however, is that Stokols seems to share Trump’s confusion. Globalization isn’t some Demogorgon stalking Washington state. To repeat myself: Everett, Wash., is not “well suited for Trump to rail against global trade” at all. Maybe one could make the case that Trump’s speech is intended for a national audience, but his local audience will be one that benefits from the liberal trading order. Indeed, this seems like a guaranteed replay of Trump’s past mistakes of not understanding the locale where he holds his rally.
At this point, I really don’t expect Donald Trump to reverse course on his Big Lie when it comes to the global economy. I do, however, expect the mainstream media to report accurately on the implications of his proposed trade policies. Simply assuming that voters will eat up his mercantilist rhetoric wherever he speaks — like boxes of Eggos — is wrong.