Donald Trump succeeded in making international trade a front-burner campaign issue in a way no other candidate for president--certainly no Republican presidential candidate--in modern history has. Election exit polls suggest that Trump's supporters see trade as one of the issues that earns their support and the themes he strikes seem to have broad political appeal. His positions seem to have already shifted those of many other elected officials and in the coming months and years are likely to become--at least partially--reality.
At the same time, President-elect Trump's trade positions have been widely derided by the trade establishment. Both Democratic and Republican critics use terms such as "irresponsible" and "unrealistic" to attack Trump's trade positions. But are Trump's policies really so ill-conceived, or might there be some substantive as well as political merit to his positions?
TRUMP TRADE POLICY
As is the case with the positions of many candidates, it is difficult at times to define precise policy prescriptions from campaign speeches. Trump trade positions are no different, but it does seem that there are at least four main themes that are repeated: 1) The entire trading system is broken; 2) New FTAs (particularly the Trans-Pacific Partnership) should be scrapped; 3) Existing FTAs (particularly NAFTA) should be abandoned or greatly altered; and 4) The relationship with China needs to be fundamentally rebuilt.
Actually, none of these positions is truly new or unique, but each deserves separate consideration.
THE SYSTEM IS BROKEN
This complaint (in the trade context) be read as an indictment of what has come to be called globalization. There have been extremely thoughtful critics of the impact of globalization on U.S. wages and jobs. At least in part, the critics have been persuasive enough that the conventional wisdom has slowly shifted.
As a political talking point, though, it is not clear that trade agreements have created globalization. Certain events, like China joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, can probably fairly be portrayed as accelerating globalization. But so most certainly have improvements in technology--for example, the Internet--which most view as even bigger drivers of globalization. Even if there was a consensus to reverse globalization tomorrow, does that mean we would somehow scrap the Internet or withdraw from international commerce? Those remedies seem neither wise nor possible and smaller steps...