Democrats are divided over how to cope with Trump’s presidency. Many counsel opposition and resistance. Others, such as Will Marshall of the left-leaning Progressive Policy Institute, argue it is in Democrats’ best interests to cooperate with Trump. As Marshall sees it, working together represents the best way to prevent the far right from capturing the policymaking agenda.
Unfortunately, however, there are precious few issues on which there is any common ground between the Democrats and President Trump. The one apparent exception is free trade. Trump’s promises to create jobs and restore American manufacturing resonate on both sides of the aisle. Bernie Sanders famously welcomed Trump’s decision to scuttle the Trans-Pacific Partnership. So, too, did left-leaning voters increasingly disillusioned by globalization.
But Democrats should not be too quick to welcome the Republican shift away from trade promotion. Ultimately, Trump’s economic nationalism is not about protecting American jobs. His comments about trade deals, much like his recent statements on the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), reveal a deeper and more worrying skepticism toward international law generally.
The White House seems opposed to any international rules that limit America’s policy autonomy. Never mind that the United States helped design many of the institutions that Trump criticizes, from NAFTA to NATO. For the president and his supporters, international law seems to be nothing more than a costly infringement on American sovereignty.
This turn away from rules-based international cooperation should concern Democrats — even those who oppose further trade liberalization. Why? Trump’s strategy will disadvantage American workers by alienating key trade partners and — equally worrying for the Left — it will result in further market deregulation.
Trade agreements are far more than agreements about tariff reductions. They are commitments by governments to play by certain rules. To that end, modern trade deals contain provisions bearing on a wide array of trade-related issues, such as labor regulations, environmental standards, and health and safety protocols.
Of course, for trade’s opponents — Left or Right — these complex rules and regulations are precisely the problem. Trade agreements are widely believed to advance only the interests of “big business,” putting downward pressure on wages and heightening job insecurity. Moreover, these regulations are thought to be either toothless or wrongheaded.
Some of these concerns are valid. Trade agreements have a highly mixed performance record. Take NAFTA, for instance, one of Trump’s favorite targets. Many Rust Belt Democrats agree with Trump that NAFTA has cost the United States jobs. And they worry that in spite of concerted efforts to monitor labor and environmental standards, NAFTA has done relatively little to advance either one.
From a liberal perspective, the trouble is not diagnosing the illness — trade law clearly needs improvement — but the prescribed medicine. Trump’s plans to abandon the system are fundamentally at odds with core Democratic priorities.
For one thing, Trump’s myopic “America First” attitude will backfire on American workers. His threats of unilateral tariff hikes have already met with derision from economists. And there is a growing consensus that this strategy will expose American firms to trade retaliation and further accelerate the decline of American manufacturing. Even Trump’s promise to rebuild the system through bilateral deal-making is costly, time-consuming, and offers no guarantees of better outcomes.
This is bad news for the voters whom Democrats traditionally represent. Joe Biden has repeatedly warned that the Democratic Party is losing touch with these voters, as last November showed. Following Trump down the path toward potential recession is only going to further distance the party from its working class base.
Quite apart from the economic costs, Trump’s position only amplifies worries over transparency and market deregulation. For Trump, renegotiating America’s trade deals means loosening constraints on American policymaking. That might sound like a good idea. Governments should be allowed to protect their citizens’ best interests, after all. But Trump’s version of U.S. autonomy is not so innocuous. He also wants to dismantle the rules and regulations that, in his view, no longer serve American interests. Moves toward deregulation have already been made on the environment and financial markets.
So the Democrats face a choice. Significant segments of the Left are frustrated by the underperformance of America’s trade deals. But supporting Trump and turning away from a rules-based trade regime means sacrificing the labor regulations, environmental standards, and various other trade-related laws that Democrats previously worked so hard to include in America’s trade deals. These rules are imperfect, but a rules-based system is better than comprehensive deregulation.
Trump’s attitude toward internationalism should come as no surprise. As a candidate, Trump notoriously implied that he would not accept the election results if he lost; as a president, he criticizes the system of checks and balances that block his immigration and health-care proposals. Now President Trump is applying that same cynicism to international laws and institutions. Democrats should not follow suit. While Trump’s skepticism about trade deals represents a good opportunity to rethink free trade, his plans to set international law afire should have every Democrat reaching for a pail of water.
Jeffrey Kucik is an Assistant Professor of Political Science in the Colin Powell School at the City College of New York.