Free trade has brought great benefits, but its advocates have failed to acknowledge how long the impact on local jobs and communities can lastby Martin Sandbu / June 16, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
“We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing. It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world.” The words were Donald Trump’s at a rally in Indiana; the subject was the United States’s trade deficit with China.
The language in which Trump chooses to frame America’s challenges is a large part of why Prospect-reading types recoil from him: again, Trump has gone beyond the pale. But it is arguably also a large part of what attracts his supporters. For there is a perspective from which the “rape” analogy, offensive as it is, captures their experience.
Listen to Trump’s rhetoric, and it cannily expresses a mix of feelings that are probably widespread within his core electoral fishing grounds: the white working class. He tells them they are being exploited by strangers (by foreign nations, through trade or immigration) and betrayed by those that should have protected them (their own nation’s elites, Republican or Democratic), with a devastating impact on their lives. Associating himself with this feeling of degradation and promising to fight those seen as responsible for it is, no matter how spontaneous it may seem, the carefully cultivated essence of Trump’s campaign.
The political as well as economic establishment shouldn’t have been blindsided by populists like Donald Trump: if many voters have turned anti-establishment, it was the establishment that abandoned them first. For too long, policymakers and economists ignored the high price paid by some for economic changes that were beneficial to most. Developments in global trade have harmed certain sections of western society, whose members were reassured that liberal free trade could only bring economic gains. In fact, with the broad gains came costs concentrated on some communities, and the damage done to local jobs has been more long-lasting than anticipated by traditional economics. Compounding the injury have been technological and political changes harming precisely the same communities.
Trump and his like will certainly do their supporters no good—but their hurt is real and their temptation to accept the snake oil on offer understandable.