18 November 2016

America was voting for nationalism, not protectionism

By Charlie Richards

Political commentators are tying themselves in knots, trying to figure out why American people voted how they did.

The prevailing theory regarding Trump’s triumph in Florida and the “rust-belt” was that voters were responding to the effects of free trade and globalisation: the outsourcing of jobs, the de-industrialisation of north-eastern economies in particular, and the perceived depressing effect on wages from Latin American immigration.

Trump’s critical stance on free-trade agreements, such as NAFTA, and the promise to end job losses in the steel industry by whacking punitive tariffs on cheap Chinese imports, clearly struck a chord with voters.

“He’ll bring the jobs back,” it was said. The protectionist battle-drum was being beaten, and hard.

There’s a theme: globalisation, and free trade most specifically, are toast.

Liberalism is now on the back foot, with the blame for economic nationalism being heaped on the liberals themselves; free trade has failed the people because of its outsourcing of jobs, and the people have had enough.

Or so the story goes.

In reality, the figures tell a very different story:


The unemployment figures during the entire election campaign in these key swing states were all historically low and falling – after the spike post 2008. Trump’s popularity was hardly caused by state-wide unemployment.

Similarly, the idea that the NAFTA agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico, which Donald Trump called the “worst trade agreement signed by anybody ever“,  led to a leaching of jobs is plain wrong. Even as steel imports rose after the agreement came into force in 1993, unemployment fell in the states hit hardest.

The CAFTA agreement (Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement), another major trade deal signed in 2004, also led to a fall in unemployment. There is no strong correlation between an increase in steel imports and unemployment.

It is clear, rather, that economic recession is to blame for the majority of job loss, not free trade.

Free-markets led to a rise in imports through the outsourcing of production to more competitive markets; unemployment decreases as that labour is then put to use in industries that are more globally competitive. Jobs aren’t lost, they’re redirected and become more efficient.

So we need to discard the notion that free trade is the indirect cause of protectionism in the US.

The story that Trump’s popularity lay in the widespread unemployment of the steel industry in the US is incorrect, as is the notion that free trade agreements such as NAFTA have destroyed jobs. They have done quite the opposite.

If we look at the exit-polls from the day of the election, we can see a very different story emerge.

According to CNN’s exit-poll, people earning over $50,000 per anum polled at 49 per cent for Trump, compared to Clinton’s 47 per cent. Similarly, people earning under $50,000 chose Clinton (52 per cent), as opposed to Trump (41 per cent).

Evidently, the election was not won by an underclass rejecting the liberal project.

Trump’s victory was decided by the better-off Americans, the people who were willing and able to take a chance on change – for them the economic system works. It was the nationalism that they liked, not the protectionism.

This outcome was far more than a reaction to the idea of a globalism that led to the recession in 2008. Yes, the “rust-belt” suffered, and yes there was a backlash against economic liberalism.

But to suggest that economic anxiety crowned Trump Commander-in-Chief is a convenient falsehood that ignores a more complex and deep-rooted sentiment.

Charlie Richards is a politics student at the University of Warwick, and Editor of the blog, Lanced (lancedpolitics.wordpress.com)