Trade Was Huge On Election Day

By Scott Paul
Nov 14 2016
My hometown. | Photo by J. Stephen Conn

After Trump’s election, is Washington listening?

This opinion was originally published on Medium.

I was raised in a small town in Indiana that gave Donald Trump 70 percent of the vote on election day.

I know many good people there voted for him in spite of his misogyny, race-baiting, bullying, and more extreme policy stances, and not because of them. That will be difficult, if not impossible, for many of my coastal friends and colleagues to understand – much less accept. And I don’t think I will change anyone’s mind, at least right now.

Yet this story played out all across America’s industrial heartland. There are hundreds upon hundreds of communities that have seen jobs offshored, factories closed, dreams shattered, and social fabrics ripped apart. And instead of empathy, many of these communities feel like they’ve received scorn.

Shame on them for not going to college; shame on them for earning a decent living; shame on them for living in the past; shame on them for not relishing the lower prices of cheap imports in exchange for their jobs and wages.

So when you feel like your voice isn’t being heard, you speak louder. That’s what we saw.

As I tweeted on election night: Pain in the industrial states is real and has shocked our politics.

Historians can settle the ultimate causes for the outcome of the historic 2016 election. But there’s a few undeniable truths that I’d like to confirm right now.

First, both parties and nearly all of the media have wildly underestimated trade and manufacturing as powerful forces in our politics. As the returns from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan came in, that power came into focus.

Second, those communities most impacted by Chinese imports tended to become more politically polarized and populist. You could see this not only in the outcome on November 8, but throughout the Democratic and Republican primaries. It’s one of the reasons why the populist primary campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump dominated the narrative, and helps explain the general election, as well.

Third, no amount of conventional wisdom and issue education is going to change the minds of the public on the purported benefits of trade, nor should it. Instead, free trade experts need to talk less and listen more. Economists and thought-leaders would be vilified if the intolerance they have for critics of our trade policies were applied to nearly any other policy issue. It reminds me of the Catholic Church of history stubbornly clinging to geo-centrism despite evidence there were serious problems with the theory. Instead of treating Adam Smith and David Ricardo like unimpeachable prophets, look at the facts on the ground.

So now what? I’m with those who say let’s work with the soon-to-be Trump administration on rebuilding America and reforming our trade policy. These are long-held goals of economic populists, domestic industries, and trade unions.

We’re not going to remake American manufacturing the way it was in the 1950s. Selling that was a remarkable feat of nostalgia on the part of Trump. But we can create more opportunities—even with the age of automation and industrial robots upon us—with better policies that will make us more competitive. That will make America a stronger nation with a growing middle class.

And what does a stronger middle class mean? Political stability.