The usual suspects will doubtless be outraged by Trump’s economic policy speech today in Detroit, where he declared in almost no uncertain terms autarchy (a purely national self-sufficient economy) as the goal of his economic plan: “American cars will travel the roads, American planes will connect our cities, and American ships will patrol the seas. American steel will send new skyscrapers soaring….and it will be American energy-mined from American sources-that powers this country. It will be American workers who are hired to do the job. Americanism not globalism will be our new credo.” Yet in this very same speech, Trump claimed: “Trade has big benefits, and I am in favor of trade. Isolation is not an option, …”
Are these contradictions merely another sign of Trump’s erratic and illogical behavior? Without careful study, it’s dangerous to jump to that conclusion. As the famed strategist Sun Tzu suggested, “If you know neither the enemy nor yourself you will succumb in every battle.” Far too much effort has been put into denouncing Donald Trump’s posture on trade, and the rage and supposed disinformation it feeds on; far too little has been invested in studying the strategy and tactics behind his stance.
Donald Trump knows himself, or at least the self-image that attracts his followers. Each of the elements of Trump’s trade policy has been crafted (consciously or unconsciously) to project one of the elements of this self-image.
First, Trump the deal-maker. Contrary to alarmist reactions to some of his off-the-cuff remarks, Trump’s plan with NAFTA and the WTO is not to tear them up but to drive a better bargain for the United States. If you believe (of course I don’t) Trump’s claim to be the consummate deal-maker, then why wouldn’t you give some credence to the idea that he could come away with better terms for American businesses and workers? And given America’s economic power, it seems implausible that other countries would refuse to come (back) to the negotiating table.
Then there is Trump the litigator. Trump has been notoriously aggressive in pursuing his interests through filing lawsuits, or threatening them. He claims that the US needs to enforce WTO rules more, especially against China, and find ways not only of filing and winning more cases but imposing larger penalties for non-compliance. Of course, as others have pointed out, that’s certainly at odds with pulling out of the WTO, and some of the penalties that Trump has in mind may not be consistent with America’s international trade obligations; but when Trump’s listeners hear him talk about trade enforcement, it isn’t surprising that they are hearing the authentic voice of Trump the litigator.
Third, there is Trump the dream salesman. This is where the bit about American cars on the roads and so on comes in. As with the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum, Trump has mobilized a constituency whose most powerful longing is to have back a different country they remember, or think they remember or that their parents remember: in Trump’s case, an America where working class life had dignity and stability, and where participating in the great American industrial machine brought not only a decent paycheck and a chance for a better life for one’s kids, but also a sense of honor or even patriotism. You only need glance at the website of the Trump Organization to see Trump’s credentials as a dream salesman. According to Trump, his hotel collection “offers a lifestyle where you can do more, experience more and live life without boundaries, limits or compromise.” Yes, without boundaries, limits or compromise”! Trump promises to fulfill dreams and not to allow what others call reality to get in the way-if we want something enough, at least if we are Americans, we can get it.
Finally, there is Trump the avenger. Trump is an angry man, who won’t put up with others getting away with harming his interests. There are many who probably, at least on their more clairvoyant or sober days, don’t buy the fantasy of bringing back some older greater America, but who sure want to hold to account those whom they think took that America away from them. So, for example, in the speech today, “Detroit is still waiting for Hillary Clinton’s apology [for supporting NAFTA and China’s entry into the WTO]”. Trump's slogan "I am your voice" is in no small part a promise to channel the anger of others, and in some way or other, to bring to book those who are the objects of their rage.
Thus, when Trump shifts on trade, he is shifting between different authentic voices-at least they are authentic in relation to the Trump image or brand (which is probably the only relevant meaning of authentic in this case). Though fully justified, challenging Trump with statistics, economic arguments and legal realities may not make enough of a difference, unless Hillary Clinton can find her own voice on trade, and make it resonate in these times. Trump understands this and so in his speech today he made the case that Clinton in inauthentic in her opposition to TPP, given her advocacy for it at various times while she was in the Obama Administration.
I was a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders though always uneasy with the balance (or imbalance) between protectionism and progressivism in his trade stance. I’m impressed with Hillary Clinton, and most of the general ideas of Bernie Sanders have found their way into her platform, in a modified way to be sure; overall, I think that reflects her different voice rather than any lack of seriousness about re-discovering a progressive side that had gotten, at times, very submerged by the demands and attitudes of machine politics. But, on trade, the Clinton campaign has not, since the primary, elaborated a developed position: Trump has managed to seize the advance, with so much attention focused on the question of Clinton’s sincerity or lack thereof in opposing TPP. This should, and can, be reversed by a full strategy that counters Trump-addressing all four of the voices in which he talks about trade. In another post, coming soon, I’ll offer some thoughts about what such a strategy might look like.