At various points in his 2016 campaign, Donald Trump endorsed “economically populist” policies that were antithetical to conservative orthodoxy — among them, a massive infrastructure stimulus, universal health care, price controls on pharmaceuticals, higher taxes on the rich, and an immediate withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Since taking office, Trump has proposed budgets that cut federal spending on infrastructure, championed health-care legislation that would have increased the ranks of the uninsured by 20 million, disavowed his support for letting Medicare negotiate with drug companies, and slashed taxes on the wealthy.
Still, you couldn’t fairly say that Trump didn’t keep any of his populist campaign promises — or at least, you couldn’t say that until today.
In a meeting with farm-state lawmakers and governors this morning, Trump revealed that he had directed his new economic adviser Larry Kudlow, and top trade negotiator Robert Lighthizer, to see if the 11 trade partners we jilted last year would be interested in getting back together.
On first blush, this flip-flop looks bizarrely timed. After all, Trump has spent much of the past two months violently defying his party’s trade orthodoxy, leveling 25 percent tariffs on steel and aluminum imports and preparing for all-out trade war with China.
In reality, however, Trump’s decision to rethink the TPP is a direct consequence of his showdown with China.
There were many sound arguments against the version of the TPP that the Obama administration opted to endorse. The agreement would have strengthened patent protections for American drug makers, thereby exporting our nation’s aberrantly high pharmaceutical prices to the developing world. And it also would have expanded the reach of the Investor State Dispute Settlement Process, a legal mechanism that allows corporations to challenge government regulations that disadvantage their business interests before an arbitration panel whose rulings cannot be appealed.
But the geopolitical case for reaching some kind of new trade agreement with our nation’s allies in the Pacific was always solid: Strengthening our economic ties to such countries would provide the U.S. with a tool for countering the influence of an ascendant China.
Trump has ostensibly begun to appreciate that case. Earlier this month, in a bid to punish Beijing for stealing American intellectual property, Trump announced plans to impose tariffs on a long list of Chinese imports. Xi Jinping responded by releasing a list of American products that he will render unaffordable to Chinese consumers via the imposition of 25 percent duties — the second that Trump follows through on his tariffs threat.
Further complicating matters for the White House, China carefully crafted its tariffs to inflict maximum pain on pro-Trump regions and industries within the United States. America’s farm belt would be especially vulnerable to Beijing’s threatened duties on American soybeans and pork. This has led agricultural interests to demand insight into the White House’s strategic thinking on such matters. And that has, apparently, led Trump to look for means of strengthening his position vis-à-vis China, and mollifying the outrage of Big Ag.
Rejoining the TPP would accomplish both those objectives.
“The best thing the United States can do to push back against Chinese cheating now is to lead the other eleven Pacific nations that believe in free trade and the rule of law,” Senator Ben Sasse said in a statement praising Trump’s decision.
It’s fitting that Trump’s TPP reversal comes the same week that his administration is preparing a potential strike against the Assad government in Syria. There was time when pundits interpreted Trump’s rise as heralding a rebirth of paleoconservatism — the protectionist, anti-interventionist, and nativist strain of right-wing thought that had last made itself known during Pat Buchanan’s third-party presidential runs. But as Trump renders his steel tariffs virtually nonexistent through various exemptions, trumpets plans to launch a military intervention in the Middle East on humanitarian grounds, and asks Larry Kudlow to help him ensnare the U.S. in yet another multilateral trade deal, it’s never been more clear that Trumpism isn’t a nationalistic alternative to movement conservatism, but rather, a more ecstatically corrupt, racist, authoritarian, and idiotic take on the GOP’s bog-standard creed.