Why you should care
Because Trump’s friends and foes have shifted.
Since President Donald Trump entered the White House last year, Democrats have moved in near lockstep to oppose most every legislative proposal he’s endorsed. But Trump’s recently announced tariffs and his new focus on trade are making lawmakers in both parties temporarily flip their presidential posturing. As America’s trade war with China escalates, a new political alignment is taking shape.
Republicans, a free-trade party, nearly unanimously oppose his trade policies. But don’t expect them to say so too loudly. And because Trump has seemingly taken a page out of the progressive playbook, Democrats don’t know how to react to a president they loathe carrying their mantle. Bringing both those historic positions sharply to the fore are the midterm elections where jobs — and so trade and tariffs — are expected to serve as a central theme.
In a deeply partisan political environment, with the president himself a polarizing figure, it isn’t easy for GOP leaders — even though they oppose the new tariff policy — to bring Trump’s measures up for a vote because they fear alienating his enthusiastic base. That’s causing fissures on the right. “Well, I think that Trumpism is not entirely Republicanism, and I think probably the main area where there’s differentiation is on the issue of trade,” says retiring representative Ryan Costello (R-Pa.).
I’m for it. I’m for the tariff plan.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)
But it’s even more complicated on the Democratic side of the aisle that is less monolithic on trade policy. The one thing Democrats have been united on is Trump. On trade and tariffs though, many Democrats find it hard to distance themselves from him, highlighting the complexity of Trumpism — an ever-evolving ideology that comes out in 280-character bursts, constantly turning former foes into issue-based allies and political fellow travelers into antagonists.
“I’m for it. I’m for the tariff plan,” says Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
Manchin is facing a tough re-election in a state that Trump resoundingly won, in part, says the senator, because Bill Clinton signed NAFTA when he was president and the trade deal annihilated entire industries across Appalachia. He says Democrats need to focus on workers ahead of November, and that’s why he’s on board with Trump’s protectionist trade policies.
Trump’s 2016 Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, said she wouldn’t leave anyone behind but “just forgot the people that made this country,” says Manchin — a Democrat echoing Trump and his supporters. Indeed, Trump’s 2016 win in formerly Democratic strongholds like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania surprised many campaign analysts. Many of the Democratic senators up for re-election in those states this year are mindful that Trump’s connection with blue-collar voters stemmed in part from his trade posture, leading some to run with Trump on tariffs while their Republican opponents avoid the issue. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) has remained a constant foe of Trump’s — even calling on him to resign — but when it comes to trade, he’s on board with the president.
“We have had tremendous job loss in Pennsylvania when China cheats on trade, when they cheat on trade-related matters, when they cheat on currency, when they cheat on intellectual property,” says Casey. “We pay the price. We lose jobs.”
Other Democrats caution their Rust Belt counterparts not to take the bait. They say Trump is starting a misguided trade war while he should be singling out China over currency manipulation. “For all of this talk on China, he’s done nothing. Zero. Currency — zero,” says Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.). “So, he’s playing patty-cake with us.”
Progressives are also wrestling with how to both embrace the thrust of Trump’s tariff plan while keeping the unpopular president at arm’s length — testing out a liberal populist election message.
“Look, in the last 40 years, the United States of America has deindustrialized. We’ve lost millions of good-paying jobs,” says Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “We have a trade deficit now that is absolutely unacceptable.” This, Sanders suggests, means America has no choice but to change its trade policy, comprehensively. But Trump, he says, has only part of the equation right. “He’s onto the right issue. His solution is not right.”
It’s different for Rust Belt Democrats who recognize that Trump and his protectionist tendencies resonate with many of their voters. Still, while they embrace the policy, they dismiss the man and some of the methods behind it.
“I’m glad he did [increase tariffs],” says Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “I’d wish he’d done it with more certitude and without the rhetoric of trade wars because it’s not a trade war, it’s trade enforcement. But the faster they can do it, the better.”
Still, Brown says he wishes Trump was also working through the World Trade Organization and developing a more nuanced and long-term trade policy. “Tariffs are a temporary solution that you can’t rely on forever,” he says. “I don’t know about the other arrows in his quiver at this point, and I wish he would talk about that a little bit.”
With elections heating up, both parties anxiously await the president’s next move on trade. Trumpism, they know, is unconventional. On trade and tariffs, it is already dividing America’s political establishment along unusual lines.