Trump, trade and the death of neo-liberalism

Steelworkers are seen in Boston in April 2014. (CNS photo/CJ Gunther, EPA)

President Donald Trump's decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and to begin renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) not only delivers on an oft-repeated campaign promise, but also throws a monkey wrench into the politics of both parties. More importantly, the issue of trade is the first in a series of political battles, and perhaps one as fraught and emblematic as immigration, that will decide the most important question facing the United States and the rest of the world: What will replace the neo-liberal order?

Republicans like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) called the decision "a big mistake." Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) praised the decision: "For the past 30 years, we have had a series of trade deals … which have cost us millions of decent-paying jobs and caused a 'race to the bottom' which has lowered wages for American workers," Sanders said. Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president who campaigned hard for Hillary Clinton, also praised the president's decision.

Part of Trump's campaign strategy from the start was to reconfigure the political and ideological landscape by realigning the Republican Party with positions that speak to the concerns of working class voters. When Steve Bannon joined the Trump campaign, this strategy took on an almost cosmological significance: Bannon has long advocated "destroying traditional political alliances" as one commentator put it.

Destroying the old is easier than resurrecting something new in its place. Rich Trumka and Sen. Sanders may support Trump's decision to can TPP, but that does not mean that they saw the same set of problems in TPP, nor that they are even close to coming together on a new means of handling trade.

On the campaign stump, Trump routinely set himself in opposition to the standard GOP stance in favor of free trade. In his inaugural address, he explicitly embraced the language of protectionism. "Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families," Trump said on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. "We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength."

The Catholic church has never advocated the kind of jingoist, nativist nationalism Trump is peddling. How could it? From Irish immigrants in the antebellum era to Latino immigrants today, the Catholic church is a church of immigrants. More than demographics is at work here: Scriptural and official, repeated church teaching recognize the rights of migrants and the need for any society to welcome them. "So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt," Israel, and therefore us RCs, were instructed in the Book of Deuteronomy (10:19). And, just last year, Pope Francis said, "A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel." The church's position on trade is related but not as precise.

The AFL-CIO, similarly, comes at the issues of trade, nationalism and the global order from a different perspective from that which animates Trump. At a conference last year entitled "Trading Up," there was no "us-versus-them" talk directed at other countries. In fact, the AFL-CIO sponsors solidarity centers worldwide, helping workers in other countries defend their rights. The "us-versus-them" language was directed instead at multinational corporations that rig trade negotiations. The dirty secret is that TPP was not an example of "free trade." Its hundreds of pages of provisions represented a grab bag of goodies for big pharma and other large corporate interests.

In discussing trade, it is important to pay attention to the personal pronouns. At the Trading Up conference, economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research said of trade deals like TPP that proponents say the deals "protect our intellectual property. But it is not 'ours.' It is Pfizer's or Merck's or Microsoft's." Trade deals extend the lives of patents, sometimes resulting in hidden tariffs amounting to 10,000 percent, Baker explained. The casualty here is not only an idyllic free trade system: Millions of people with treatable diseases are kept from accessing medicines that could alleviate their suffering, all in the name of corporate profit.

Thomas Palley, senior economic policy adviser at the AFL-CIO, correctly stated that the neo-liberal trade policy, like TPP, "masquerades as a trade agenda but is in fact a global governance agenda." This is not all about abstract economic theory, which would be bad enough if the abstractions are clung to so tightly we ignore the reality on the ground. It is about power. "It is exploitation by global arbitrage."

Donald Trump may wish to bruise other countries and their people in crafting a new regime of trade deals. That is not anything a Catholic, or any person mindful of the disparity of wealth between the U.S. and poorer countries, could support. What labor leaders and church leaders seek is an end to provisions that require any worker challenging the labor practices of a corporation to file suit in the District Court in New York City, which the workers can't afford but where the lawyers for the multinationals feel right at home. Those motivated by justice want to end a trade regime that ensconces the power of global elites and opens opportunities for workers in Michigan and Malaysia, in Ohio and Oceania.

After Trump signed the executive order, Trumka issued this statement which is worth reprinting in full:

Last year, a powerful coalition of labor, environmental, consumer, public health and allied groups came together to stop the TPP. Today's announcement that the US is withdrawing from TPP and seeking a reopening of NAFTA is an important first step toward a trade policy that works for working people. While these are necessary actions, they aren't enough. They are just the first in a series of necessary policy changes required to build a fair and just global economy. We will continue our relentless campaign to create new trade and economic rules that end special privileges for foreign investors and Big Pharma, protect our planet's precious natural resources and ensure fair pay, safe conditions and a voice in the workplace for all workers. 

That's not how Trump speaks.

Let no one mourn the death of neo-liberalism. But what shall replace it? Neo-liberalism sought humane ends, even if it was always too sanguine in its belief that the effects of the market and globalization would be benign. Trump does not seek humane ends. He seeks "to win" whatever that means. It is how he views the world, as one big contest and he wants to be on top. That is not how organized labor views the world, nor is it how the Catholic church views the world. The world needs solidarity, not jingoism. The world needs a social market economy that serves the interests of all, not the bank accounts of the few. If Trump can stumble into some good policies, great. But it is not enough.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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