Trump, Trade, Immigration, and Working Class Americans

By Dan Cadman on July 26, 2016

I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country, and they are forgotten, but they will not be forgotten long. These are people who work hard but no longer have a voice. I am your voice. ... I pledge to never sign any trade agreement that hurts our workers, or that diminishes our freedom and independence.

— Donald Trump, presidential nomination acceptance speech

Like no other politician in recent history, Donald Trump is a tuning fork who resonates to the concerns of millions of ordinary Americans in the working classes. He has thrown conservative orthodoxy into chaos in his path to the nomination, and breathes so hotly on Hillary Clinton's neck as she too seeks the presidency that it has forced her to choose a running mate perceived as enough of a centrist to counterbalance her leftward lunge, in hopes of retrieving enough of the independent vote to help her win.

One of the areas in which Trump has broken the bubble by speaking the unspeakable, often in unrefined, sometimes offensive, ways, is immigration. Many so-called conservatives who find the Trump vision for America offensive to their views themselves possess shockingly liberal attitudes toward immigration enforcement.

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan is one such conservative, as was Sen. Marco Rubio, who plunged from the heights like Icarus, his campaign aflame from his association with the infamous and deceptive Gang of Eight mass amnesty bill. Trump's seizure of the immigration issue and insistence on the need for real border security not only helped catapult him into the Republican Party nomination, but has clearly put these conservatives and their questionable ideas toward sovereignty vs. unfettered illegal immigration on the defensive.

Free trade, one of orthodox Republicans' most sacred scriptures, an orthodoxy shared by many liberal Democrats, has also come under Trump's withering gaze. He has grasped the nexus between trade deals and immigration, and their cumulative effect on white and blue collar America's slipping hold on the ladder of economic wellbeing.

For decades, Americans have been told that we must engage in free trade deals to open up markets to our exports and remain competitive in the global market. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the mid-90s granddaddy of trade deals, was brokered during Bill Clinton's presidency. Americans were led to believe that NAFTA would not only create American jobs, but many in Mexico as well, thus creating an impetus for Mexicans to remain home instead of crossing the border illegally to seek jobs in the United States — a win-win situation if ever there was one.

A substantial number of "maquiladoras" (factories) did indeed open up in northern Mexico, but as often as not they were relocated U.S. factories, making the American Rust Belt all that much rustier although corporate profits rose significantly on the labor cost savings. Even now, "researchers" are suggesting that Rust Belt cities and their denizens should be comfortable with their diminished status and "embrace 'smart decline'", as if urban decay were not only inevitable but acceptable.

Other maquiladoras were established by foreign firms wanting free and direct access to U.S. markets while producing goods at a fraction of the labor costs American workers would expect. Locating factories in Mexico achieved this goal, but at the expense of American workers and consumers.

Twenty-plus years and several trade deals later, ordinary Americans have reason to be skeptical. Free trade seems less like an "everyone benefits" enterprise and more like a zero-sum game practiced at the expense of our working class; one in which there are clear winners (corporate shareholders and foreign workers) and clear losers (American workers). Although it's clear that Mexican maquiladora workers, and their counterparts elsewhere we have trade deals in effect, were bootstrapped up the economic ladder, the number of illegal aliens from Mexico and other countries has not dried up; and "offshoring" has become a favorite way to dodge American taxes and labor costs while still leaving markets open to their products.

Some of the free trade deals have had codicils that open up the door to foreign workers who siphon off available jobs. But even in the absence of such codicils, the same free-tradists who advocate such deals have been instrumental in wedging open nonimmigrant worker visa programs that have been so poorly crafted, and so distorted by the regulatory acrobatics of the Obama administration, that tens of thousands of aliens willing to work for less money flood into our country yearly, sometimes replacing pink-slipped Americans who are obliged to train these new hires as they themselves are being pushed out the door. These nonimmigrant workers often fail to leave when their work permits are expiring, choosing instead to join the pool of millions of other illegal aliens living and working in the United States.

Trump's anti-trade deals message (one shared by Bernie Sanders before he was tamed by the Democratic machine) resonates because it vocalizes the insecurities and outrage working Americans feel over repeatedly being had by bad trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact (TPP) with codicils so secret the White House didn't want Congress to see them, a situation that our Republican-dominated House and Senate initially seemed content to accept (as they did with the Iran nuclear "non-treaty" deal) until public outrage forced them to table the deal. Note, though, that the TPP is not dead and could be resurrected by Ryan and other free-tradists if they feel they could manipulate the rules skillfully enough to shepherd it through Congress.

In laying out his anti-globalist position, Trump has appalled many of the Republican free-trade advocates (again, such as Ryan) — but along the way he has also forced Hillary Clinton to do one of her signature flip-flops on the TPP and decide that it was, after all, a bad idea, a change in position noted by Americans even if generally glossed over by most of the media.

But the reality, as ordinary working Americans know or suspect, is that:

  • Our wages have stagnated;

  • More heads of families are forced into working two or three jobs, often temporary in nature or minus health, pension, or other benefits;

  • The median earnings of Americans in 2014 fell to 1996 levels; and

  • As Backgrounders from scholars writing for the Center have shown, most new jobs have gone to immigrants, not Americans (see here and here).

Given these facts, it inevitably forces one to question whether "it make[s] sense to continue to admit a million new permanent immigrants each year, along with several hundred thousand guestworkers, given the enormous pool of working-age people not working", as well as whether it makes sense to continue to plow forward with new trade agreements when the old ones have shown themselves full of promise but empty of delivery.

Of course, it's early days yet and impossible to know whether or not Trump will win or lose the presidency. Should he lose, there will no doubt not only be a lot of Democrats, but even establishment Republicans, breathing a hidden sigh of relief that the hurricane has passed. They may be inclined at that point to think of the Trump phenomenon as one of those occasional and anomalous eruptions in the American body politic — call it the "Ross Perot effect" — that blows over as quickly as it came, leaving business and politics to continue as usual. This time, it's not so clear that would be true. It may be difficult to put the whirling, spinning genie of working class discontent back into the bottle.

Topics: Politics