After Donald Trump was elected, some progressives harbored the hope that he might make a partial constructive difference on trade. At least he recognized that China’s state capitalism was predatory on the system and on American industry and jobs. At least he recognized that NAFTA hadn’t lived up to billing, and that it mattered whether the United States retained more manufacturing. Yes, some of his gambits were mere stunts, but this was a welcome acknowledgment.
Silly progressives. This set of assumptions overlooked both his short attention span and his personal corruption.
Trump’s prime trade war right now is with the EU, as fallout from pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. He has sent totally mixed signals on China, evidently to feather his own nest on a business deal supported by the Chinese. The effort to renegotiate NAFTA seems to be collapsing.
Meanwhile, Trump’s true class alliance is expressed in policies like the $1.9 trillion tax cut, mostly for the very rich, and in his deals with every fat-cat industry, from pharmaceuticals to banks.
Almost by accident, Trump got himself a team of trade negotiators who actually knew what they were doing, and who began a long-overdue process of revising U.S. trade policy. Trump thinks nothing of undercutting them based on his changing whims and personal business interests. You have to wonder how long good people like Robert Lighthizer, Trump’s top trade negotiator, will last.
One possible silver lining: Trump has blown up a lot of mistaken premises about the U.S. national interest when it comes to trade. The reform agenda will be there after he is gone. It is hard to imagine any of the Democratic contenders for president reverting to the all too bipartisan corporate/Wall Street trade agenda of the Clintons, Obama, and the two Presidents Bush.