Any doubts that Donald Trump has had a huge (as he might say) influence on the Republican Party were dispelled this month when Senator Rob Portman came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
There is no more respected member of what’s called the Republican establishment: The Ohio lawmaker is a confidant of the Bush family, a runner-up vice-presidential pick in 2012 and a former U.S. trade representative.
But Portman is up for re-election, and Trump has changed the dynamics of the trade debate. The senator voted last year to give President Barack Obama fast-track negotiating authority on trade agreements, which was intended to pave the way for pushing the 12-nation Pacific Rim deal through Congress. But early this month he said he was opposed to the agreement.
Even Portman’s friends acknowledge that his reasoning — that the TPP doesn’t stop currency manipulation — is specious: The former top trade official in the administration of President George W. Bush knows that such matters aren’t the province of trade deals.
Republicans used to be the protectionist party. They authored the infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930. After World War II, when the U.S. emerged as a global superpower, both parties essentially embraced the nation’s role as a leader in the world’s economic recovery.
But a generation ago, Democrats, prodded by labor, began to change their stance because too many workers were being displaced by globalization. It was left to a couple of Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Obama, working with Republicans, to embrace and enact trade measures.
In this election season, however, Trump has set the agenda, and no presidential candidate is carrying a free-trade banner. The billionaire charges that America’s “political hacks and diplomats” have been taken to the cleaners on trade deals
that have cost millions of jobs.
A number of economists and trade experts have dialed back their unbridled enthusiasm for trade deals. The advantages are well advertised, and largely correct, but the problems for US workers are more severe than most free-trade advocates have acknowledged. This is especially true for those in manufacturing and low-skilled, older workers, many of whom are drawn to Trump. Surveys show that most South Carolinians favor a tax on imported goods to protect domestic jobs and that the state’s Republicans, even more than Democrats, are anti-TPP. Trump was the runaway winner of South Carolina’s Republican primary and trumpeted his protectionism in his victory speech. That’s a message that will resonate in financial and trade capitals around the world.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was formerly the executive editor of Bloomberg News, directing coverage of the