Donald Trump ran for president on a platform of, among other things, strident opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement that the Obama administration negotiated and that most congressional Republicans supported.
Trump said that while NAFTA was “the worst trade deal in the history of the country,” the TPP was even worse, posing “the greatest danger yet” to American jobs and prosperity.
“It's a rape of our country,” he said at an Ohio rally. “It's a harsh word, but that's what it is — rape of our country.”
Hillary Clinton also said that she would not move forward with the TPP if she won the election, a commitment she made in order to secure labor union support in her primary campaign against Bernie Sanders. Trump, of course, rejected this flip-flop, pointing out that Clinton had called it a “gold standard” trade agreement while working on an earlier version of the agreement as secretary of state.
Given his strong feelings about the matter, one can only imagine how furious the president-elect is going to be when he finds out what some of the members of his Cabinet have said.
Many Trump appointees are TPP fans
Trump’s designated secretary of defense, retired Gen. James Mattis, isn’t really known for his trade policy expertise. But he does think about big-picture strategic issues, and he joined with a bipartisan group of former secretaries of defense and senior military officers to sign a letter to Congress endorsing the TPP.
“If, however, we fail to move forward with TPP,” the letter warned, “Asian economies will almost certainly develop along a China-centric model. In fact, China is already pursuing an alternative regional free trade initiative.”
Trump’s designated energy secretary, Rick Perry, is also a TPP fan.
“Perry has always supported free trade and its positive impact on economic growth and job creation,” spokesperson Travis Considine told Breitbart’s Alex Swoyer. “He believes America can achieve robust economic growth and job creation, similar to what has occurred in Texas, with trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”
Documents obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests show that Trump’s choice to lead the National Economic Council, Goldman Sachs president and chief operating officer Gary Cohn, emailed pro-TPP economic policy analysis directly to Obama’s lead trade negotiator as part of a larger cooperative strategy on TPP between the Obama White House and Wall Street.
Trump’s designated ambassador to China, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, was also a strong TPP advocate, arguing that while the deal wasn’t perfect, it would “break down these barriers and open up markets.” At the end of the day, Branstad said, “When we do that, we benefit.” On similar grounds to Branstad, Trump’s designated interior secretary, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, came out in favor of TPP as a boon to his state’s agricultural sector.
Among Trump appointees in less relevant positions, designated HHS Secretary Tom Price, along with HUD Secretary Ben Carson, is in favor of TPP, and unless it’s a big subject of dispute in her marriage (to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell), so is Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.
Rex Tillerson really, really likes TPP
Yet perhaps no one in the emerging Trump administration has been as fervent a supporter of TPP and other trade deals as the man stepping into the job Clinton once held — Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson.
Speaking to a crowd at the Asia Society Global Forum back in 2013, Tillerson offered a gushing globalist vision, arguing that “we must embrace the free flow of energy, capital, and human talent across oceans and borders.”
In addition to a generalized call for open borders and the free movement of capital (and thus jobs) offshore, Tillerson offered specific remarks in favor of the TPP:
Even when a nation does not have a rich endowment of resources, we have learned that open markets and free trade can bring nations the energy supplies they need. But only governments can open the avenues of free trade. In the years ahead, as the economy and energy landscape evolves worldwide, leaders in the United States and Asia will need to examine how their own policies can support international cooperation and energy trade.
One of the most promising developments on this front is the ongoing effort for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The eleven nations that have been working to lower trade barriers and end protectionist policies under this Partnership are a diverse mix of developed and developing economies. But all of them understand the value of open markets to growth and progress for every nation. The prospects for the Trans-Pacific Partnership were recently strengthened as the participating nations announced they will welcome Japan’s entry into the Partnership.
Trumpism is an awkward governing agenda
The main takeaway here is not that Trump is going to secretly turn around and get the TPP ratified. Even before the election, TPP didn’t have the votes needed to pass on Congress, and attempting to revive it at this point would be a fool’s errand.
What you see from the broad support for TPP among Trump appointees is that beyond the specifics of Trump’s anti-trade rhetoric, there is no revisionist populist economic policy philosophy animating his administration. Some of Trump’s picks seem unqualified for the specific job they have been tapped for (Perry would be better suited for Interior, which manages federal mineral rights, than for Energy, which is largely nuclear research) or for any Cabinet job at all (looking at you Ben Carson), but all share a fairly conventional conservative governing philosophy.
The deeper issue is that Trump’s grab bag of policy stances makes for an awkward combination with this philosophy.
Sociologically speaking, Trump’s white working-class supporters in rural areas and his white working-class supporters in industrial towns are very similar. And there’s a commonsense way in which natural resource extraction work — drilling for oil and gas, mining coal, growing crops, chopping trees — and manufacturing work represent similar kinds of manly blue-collar occupations. But in terms of practical economics, these sectors are very different.
The influx of manufactured goods from China badly hurt the economy in certain American counties, especially in a handful of key swing states — Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina — that decided the election. But if you compare Trump’s results in 2016 with Mitt Romney’s results in 2012, his strongest swing came in Iowa — a state that has benefited massively from agricultural exports that feed China’s growing appetite for meat — which is precisely why its governor has extensive experience with China and is well-qualified for the ambassadorship Trump has tapped him for.
By the same token, Trump’s desire for a rapprochement with Russia seems driven in part by a sense that we ought to tilt our foreign policy in a more anti-Chinese direction. But as the letter Mattis signed argued, abandoning TPP accomplishes the exact opposite of this — undermining efforts to draw non-Chinese Asian countries into closer alignment with each other and encouraging the formation of a China-centric East Asian order.
All of which is to say that the world is a complicated place and navigating that complexity is a difficult task. Trump has proven that a total lack of demonstrated understanding of the policy issues facing the United States of America is less of a bar to winning votes than one might have thought.
But the presidency is still a big job with enormous consequences, and the various contradictions and lurking time bombs in what we see of Trump’s governing agenda suggest that it won’t be done very well.