As the media continues to fixate on the Trump campaign’s supposed ties with Russia, reporters and ordinary Americans are missing a much more important story: the opening chapter in Trump’s efforts to reform U.S. trade policies. During the campaign, Trump spoke again and again about the pain and job losses caused by unfair trade agreements, and he promised that as president, he would broker better deals that protected American interests. So what has he done? Although much more is to come, the new administration has already notched some impressive wins—and they deserve to be recounted.
First, Trump has pushed back against recent decisions by the Canadian government that subject U.S. milk exports to tariffs, harming dairy farmers in New York state in particular. He even earned praise from Sen. Chuck Schumer, usually no Trump fan, for his bold approach. “I support President Trump’s statement…[and] I look forward to working with the administration to pressure and persuade the Canadians to reverse this unwise policy,” said Schumer. Partly in retaliation for the Canadian aversion to U.S. milk, President Trump imposed tariffs on Canadian lumber.
Second, Trump delivered on his promise to improve the terms of the U.S.-China trade relationship, specifically by opening China to U.S. beef and natural gas exports and to banking and financial services companies. Granted, China’s status as a “currency manipulator” and other thorny issues have been put on the back burner, as Trump seeks China’s help in bringing North Korea to heel. Still, both countries have committed to making further progress within 100 days.
Third, early in May, the Senate confirmed Trump’s outstanding and highly qualified pick to be U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer. Despite the acrimony and partisanship that prevails in Congress these days, the vote was not even close: 82-14. (36 Democrats voted for Lighthizer.) This strong endorsement of the Trump administration’s point man for trade came in part due to both parties’ recognition that Americans overwhelmingly agree with the president that existing trade agreements have cost American jobs and need to be replaced. For instance, in a Quinnipiac poll done shortly after the election, Americans expressed a desire to renegotiate major trade deals, even if this meant that they would have to pay more for some products. 64 percent endorsed this approach, compared to 28 percent who were opposed. Given these numbers, Democrats would be crazy to oppose President Trump’s aggressive moves to achieve greater trade fairness. And crazy they may be, but not crazy enough to commit political suicide.
Fourth, on May 18, Trump took one of his biggest steps yet towards a “New Deal” on trade: he initiated a structured process for the renegotiation of NAFTA, our free-trade agreement with Canada and Mexico. The potential implications are, as Trump put it himself, “massive”. Moreover, Trump has unusual leverage, given his repeated statements that he is willing to “terminate” NAFTA if he isn’t satisfied with the renegotiation. At long last, that “giant sucking sound” of U.S. job losses to Mexico, caused by NAFTA and predicted back in 1992 by maverick presidential candidate Ross Perot, may finally be reversed. The media may not care, but you can bet that many voters would be elated.
Finally, on June 1, President Trump took the momentous step of withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement. He did so, as he explained in the Rose Garden, not because of any hostility to the climate (it’s absurd to suggest that anyone is rooting against Planet Earth, after all), but because he wishes to see the problem of carbon emissions tackled in a way that protects American jobs, promotes domestic energy production and energy independence, and treats the U.S. fairly in comparison to other nations. The last point is critical, because it’s clear that the Paris agreement was made by globalists, including President Obama, who are willing to assume the steady economic decline of the U.S., and the economic rise of China and other poorer countries. These declinists then calibrate the burdens of cutting carbon emissions and micromanage international economics accordingly.
By contrast, Trump’s realignment of U.S. trade policies presupposes, first and foremost, that our country controls its own economy and how it interacts with the economies of other nations. Multilateral pacts like NAFTA and the Paris agreement, however, compromise our economic sovereignty, because they are purposely designed to do so, and for this reason for President Trump they are a non-starter. Worse, the Paris Agreement surrendered our economic independence not in exchange for “fixing” the climate, but purely to obtain empty promises from other countries that, in the future, they would emit less carbon. The political and economic damage to the U.S. would have been certain, therefore, while the “gains” were purely speculative. All in all, Trump’s rejection of the Paris agreement is perhaps the best and strongest sign that Trump wants to reframe U.S. trade policies and, indeed, our whole trade philosophy, around America First.
Thus Trump is taking action on trade to fulfill the heartfelt desire of the American people, including Republicans and Democrats, to reconsider trade agreements, and other multilateral pacts, that aren’t in our national interest. On this issue, perhaps more than any other, President Trump has an opportunity to unite the country, as well as give a shot in the arm to struggling American workers.
On trade, Trump is succeeding where other presidents have failed. He has made protecting American jobs, and preserving our economic sovereignty, priorities for the first time in decades. No wonder the liberal media would rather talk about something else.
Nicholas L. Waddy, an associate professor of history at SUNY Alfred, blogs at www.waddyisright.com.