This post first appeared in Yes! Magazine.
It must have been sweet music to the ears of workers in Monessen, Pennsylvania, in the heart of America’s rust belt.
“Globalization has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very wealthy,” the political candidate declared during a speech at a struggling aluminum plant. “But it has left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache.”
It’s comforting to hear a national leader affirm what so many of us know from painful experience. We’ve been screwed by political elites who have foisted on us deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). Workers have seen their jobs shipped overseas, their neighborhoods devastated, and their living standards slashed—all while corporate profits have soared.
Less heartening is the reality that these words came from Donald J. Trump.
How is it that a populist charlatan — a man who vows to make companies build with American steel but imports steel for his own construction, who invokes worker pride on the campaign trail yet tries to break unions at his hotels — is able to garner a passionate following among working-class people?
It’s not simply that Trump has effectively channeled their pain and anger through his rhetoric. The harsh truth is that Trump gets traction on trade — and his glaring defects get a pass from many — because he’s filling a huge vacuum in the country’s political discourse. For years, neither of the two main political parties has articulated a vision of international trade that puts workers, communities, and our environment ahead of corporate interests.
His message to workers resonates because of its truth: The political establishment is screwing you.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton pushed NAFTA through Congress with strong Republican support, and seven years later the same bipartisan coalition paved the way for China’s entry into the WTO. Then, as a presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama called the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement “badly flawed” because it was tilted in Korea’s favor. But once in office, he pushed the deal through Congress with support from both sides of the aisle. And Obama has gone on to promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a deal negotiated in secret and designed to undermine local and national laws that protect workers and the environment.
These neoliberal agreements aren’t just destroying good jobs and incomes.
Only last month, the Obama administration, backed by corporate interests, successfully blocked the Indian government’s massive solar energy program by persuading the WTO that India’s promotion of domestic solar panel manufacturing violated WTO rules.
In the 22 years since NAFTA was enacted, the U.S. trade deficit has quintupled to more than $500 billion a year, at least 6 million manufacturing jobs have been lost, real wages have plummeted not just in the U.S. but also in Mexico, and corporate profits have hit record highs.
This history is the reason we have Donald Trump today. His message to workers resonates because of its truth: The political establishment is screwing you.
He’s not the first right-wing candidate to play that card.
In 1992, billionaire H. Ross Perot, running for president as an independent, predicted that NAFTA would create a “giant sucking sound” as jobs drained out of the country. A few years later, Pat Buchanan picked up the populist banner in his own run for president. “Why do you think there’s such rage and anger out there?” he asked. Under NAFTA, Buchanan explained, “You’re risking social stability just so some of these corporations’ profits can be dramatically increased; they can move factories anywhere.”
Neither of these men had done much to help working people, but they garnered working-class support because the Democratic and Republican political establishment had abandoned workers on trade, ceding space that these opportunists were happy to fill.
Trump is simply carrying on that tradition. He’s finding great success because, as MarketWatch columnist Rex Nutting recently noted, Democrats have “sided with the elites on the crucial economic question of our times: Who would win from globalization, and who would lose?”
It matters little that Trump’s rhetoric runs directly counter to his decades-long record — multiple business failures that lined his own pockets but stiffed residents and workers in places like Atlantic City. His words give comfort to people in profound pain.
And yet, they are the hollow words of a false prophet. But we also would be wrong to see Hillary Clinton’s recent disavowal of TPP as anything more than a campaign exigency. After all, as secretary of state she hailed the TPP as the “gold standard” in world trade agreements and since securing her party’s nomination has gone to great lengths to assure her wealthy patrons that she will reliably support them on trade.
Clinton’s positions remind us that we have to resist the temptation to distill the trade struggle into a contest between candidates. Instead, we must build a movement for trade justice that rejects both Trump’s opportunism and the long-standing neoliberalism of the Democratic and Republican parties.
Trade is about power. Ostensibly trade agreements are between and among governments, but in this age of global corporations it would be a mistake to focus solely on the nation-state interplay. Rather, the primary power dynamic is between working people, broadly defined — here in the U.S. and around the world — and global corporations.
At issue is whether we will build a global trading system that serves human needs, including environmental protection, or one that puts private profit above all else. Which vision prevails has less to do with the election of one candidate over another in the short term, and more about what kind of grassroots movement for trade justice we build to force political change in the years ahead.
In 1999, in the face of a seemingly invincible World Trade Organization, tens of thousands of activists allied with the movements for labor, the environment, human rights, and racial justice united in the streets of my hometown, Seattle, and shut down the WTO meeting.
Under the slogan “Teamsters and Turtles United at Last,” the protesters struck a blow against elites and lifted up a vision of a world trading system that put communities ahead of corporations and created jobs while protecting human rights and the environment. Though only a temporary setback for political and corporate elites, the WTO showdown gave confidence to people around the world that it was possible to fight back.
We should look back to the “Battle in Seattle” and trade fights ever since, not for nostalgia but to glean vital lessons of what it will take to win. Having a common adversary can bring diverse constituencies together. But powerful coalitions will only endure if they are united in a forward-looking vision of trade justice.
Clinton’s positions remind us that we have to resist the temptation to distill the trade struggle into a contest between candidates.
Today, you can’t point to any single U.S. group that represents a full-fledged trade-justice movement. But important efforts are underway, and coalitions are forming that connect the dots between trade, jobs, the environment, racial justice, and human rights. Alliances like 350.org and the Labor Network for Sustainability are two examples of groups that knit together interrelated struggles in a critique of the status quo and a call for action. Meanwhile, economist Jared Bernstein and Public Citizen’s Lori Wallach just issued a thought-provoking manifesto on progressive principles for global trade.
In the coming weeks, many progressives will be working to ensure Donald Trump isn’t elected on Nov. 8. But the election of Hillary Clinton provides us no relief on global trade issues. Indeed, her anticipated victory will only extend a long line of presidents deeply committed to pro-corporate trade practices.
It’ll be our job beginning Nov. 9 to redouble the fight against neoliberal trade policy, building a broad grassroots movement to oppose what’s wrong with the TPP and similar pacts while lifting up a bold vision of true international trade justice.