Bernie’s gift to the Trumpers

In the campaign of 2016, Bernie Sanders offered a progressive critique of our economic/political system that resonated with a broad swath of the electorate. He articulated things that many of us had been thinking for a long time, and did it in a way that cut through the white noise of political discourse.

He did a lot of things right. There’s one thing he got wrong — well, let’s say he got it partly right — and as it turned out, that one thing may have made a crucial difference for Donald Trump.

Bernie’s analysis of trade and domestic job losses focused mainly on one element: international trade agreements.

He’s about one-fourth right. We’ll get to the other three-fourths in a bit.

His simplified message proved very powerful in his fight for the Democratic nomination, and was a core argument in his case against Hillary Clinton. But afterward, it became a potent weapon in the Trump arsenal. One could argue it won him the election, since his extremely narrow victories in Rust Belt states were due to economic anxiety focused on those evil trade deals.

The argument was a natural for Trump, because it aimed the anger at the government instead of the wealthy and large corporations. It was not them but the government, embodied in Hillary Clinton, that screwed up our economy by giving away the store to the likes of China and Mexico.

This idea crystallized in my mind after reading two articles on why the Northeast Kingdom went overwhelmingly for Trump. VTDigger’s Jasper Craven and Seven Days’ Mark Davis describe an economically depressed region desperate for change. (Of any kind except renewable energy, that is.) Both reporters note that the NEK went strongly for Barack Obama and reliably supports Bernie Sanders.

Which made me ponder: how on earth could the same folks vote for a Brooklyn socialist, a black Democrat, and a plutocrat? One common factor is anti-establishment feeling, expressed this year as fierce opposition to global trade.

Craven leans heavily on the thoughts of Chet Greenwood, an executive at the Ethan Allen furniture company and chair of the Orleans County Republican Committee. (He was also a Trump delegate to the Republican convention, although Craven doesn’t mention that.)

Greenwood asserted that “Trump would bring good jobs back to America by renegotiating the North America Free Trade Agreement.” And presumably canceling the dreaded Trans-Pacific Partnership, whose initials became synonymous with government perfidy.

Which, yeah, I hope he’s not holding his breath on that one. Redoing NAFTA would require the assent of the other nations involved. Plus, all Trump’s big-business friends have no interest in trade barriers of any sort.

And besides all that, rewriting or canceling the treaty will simply not bring back all those jobs. America’s working-class woes can be partly blamed on trade treaties, but there are other, equally (or more) powerful forces at work. To wit:

— Automation has made all businesses more efficient. They can do more with fewer workers, especially in manufacturing and other blue-collar sectors. They can also simplify the jobs, so workers are much more interchangeable. Those pre-robot jobs ain’t coming back, no matter what.

— The war on organized labor, conducted in full force since Ronald Reagan fired all the air traffic controllers, has dramatically reduced the bargaining power of workers.

Those two factors began to hit the working and middle classes long before NAFTA was a fever dream in, apparently, Hillary Clinton’s head. For instance, the auto industry took full advantage of automation, and aggressively moved operations to non-union areas of the US as well as other countries. This process started in the 1970s, and was in full force by the time NAFTA was enacted in 1994. The twin cudgels of automation and Southsourcing turned the United Auto Workers into a shadow of its former self before the first trade deal allowed the first job to cross into Mexico.

— American tax policy has actually rewarded offshoring and other corporate tactics that lower domestic employment.

And actually, in many areas of our economy, the dreaded trade agreements have had a positive impact. Many sectors have grown. But the rewards and the pain are not equally distributed; rural areas, the Rust Belt, and the manufacturing sector have been hit hardest.

The problem is not with the trade deals per se; it’s with our inadequate efforts to create new opportunities to those who’ve been negatively impacted.

Perhaps that’s a bridge too far for some readers to swallow. So let’s stick with this simple truth: Bernie Sanders oversimplified the problem of working- and middle-class stagnation by framing it largely as a function of giveaway trade deals. This focused the attention on the failings of the public sector instead of the predations of the rich and corporate.

That simplification turned the usually boring subject of trade policy into a hot-button issue, but also made it a bespoke weapon in the tiny hands of Donald Trump.


10 thoughts on “Bernie’s gift to the Trumpers

  1. Anne Majusiak

    I am so glad you articulated what I have been thinking for awhile, that Bernie oversimplified the issue of trade agreements and gave Trump an easy weapon in this election. That, and the word “rigged.”.

  2. Sherman Schman

    Remember DRAIN THE SWAMP! Well, Trump is not draining the swamp, he is stocking it with alligators and snakes, big snakes. He is “rigging” the swamp.

  3. walter carpenter

    “He is “rigging” the swamp.”

    The next few years are not going to make those Trump voters realize what they did to themselves…and to the rest of us.

  4. Faith King

    I think the analysis is tortuous here (and you’re deflecting the blame). So Bernie shouldn’t have made the valid observations he did, raised the concerns that he did, in the way that he did (simply, powerfully) because…”Trump”? Come on. Trump basically gobbled-up any emotional issue he could find in his masterful, manipulative effort to funnel voters to him. Like a snowball picking up detritus (and crap) as it rolls along. I’d say: (1) Clinton was and remains weak and unconvincing when it comes to demonstrating an understanding of all the people in this country who are falling more and more behind (2) Long, complicated and wonky messaging FAILS. Voters knew what Trump’s vision was – dark. They knew what Sander’s vision was. Clinton (who I did back) not so much. (3) It’s simplistic on your part to suggest that blaming trade deals is “blaming the government” not the corporations. You’ll remember Sander’s robust denunciation of “Citizen’s United”, right? Contrasted with Clinton’s, well, acknowledgement that the case has opened the door to unlimited corporate spending while still taking advantage of the money……. I’ll quit here. Too much to write about in a blog reply.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Bernie did a politically smart thing: he took a complicated issue and made it really simple. He identified a villain and hammerered it. In so doing, he let some of the real villains off the hook. He didn’t intend to manufacture an issue for Trump, but that’s how it played out.

  5. walter h moses

    Perhaps Minters defeat had something to do with:
    “Eighty percent of Vermonters approve of industrial wind.” NOT.
    “Blittersdorf was a big contributor to Minter’s campaign.” YES
    “Jillions of dollars were spent and you still can’t contact Health Connect or Correct or whatever.”
    Is it fixed yet?
    “Let’s not enforce the laws when it comes to illegal aliens.” Poor guys.
    Shumlin is a loser, Minter had that as baggage. The worst kind.

  6. Robert Maynard

    The common ground between Bernie and Trump does not end there. One of Bernie’s main agenda items was to spend a lot on infrastructure to create jobs. During the campaign, Trump vowed to spend up to $500 billion on such a plan, now it is up to $1 trillion. Bernie has been quoted as saying that this is something he can work with Trump on. In the meantime, Trump supposedly has met with Pelosi and Shumer and the plan is supprted by both the unions and the Chamber of Commerce. Some libertarian leaning Republicans are opposed to this, but will probably get bulldozed.

    Keep an eye on this John. Trump has a LOT of allies in the fields of the economy that would be building that infrastructure. A true free market, anti-crony way of doing this would to create market incentives for competetion and private investment. Trump will not go that route. Instead he will engage in the biggest give away to well placed corporations that this country has ever seen and it will be done with bipartisan support and the blessing of major progressive leaders. Maybe then rank and file progressives can join with libertarians and try to fight back.


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