Are Donald Trump's attacks on free-trade deals alienating big business?

In championing workers rights, Donald Trump is criticizing free trade deals. That's putting Trump and major corporations on opposites sides.

David Zalubowski/AP Photo
In this July 1, 2016, photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during the opening session of the Western Conservative Summit in Denver. For the first time in more than 20 years, there are now more registered Democrats in the state than Republicans.

When it comes to global trade deals, Donald Trump and the representatives of major corporations, including the US Chamber of Commerce, are publicly clashing. For the moment, that presents an opening for Hillary Clinton. But the shifting alliances between business and politics may impact how future candidates appeal to skeptical voters, analysts say. 

During Mr. Trump’s campaign rally speech in Pennsylvania, he decried the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership deal and spoke out against the United States' involvement in the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). 

"Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization – moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas," the presumptive GOP presidential nominee said. "Globalization has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very wealthy. But it has left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache." 

In response, major business groups – traditionally allied to the policies of the Republican party – are distancing themselves from Trump, CNN reports. Sensing an opportunity, Clinton has carefully started to woo those interests, while still mindful of many voters' similar concerns about free trade. 

“There are different pressures in each party that are forcing both of the presumptive nominees to move closer to an anti-globalization type stance,” Dr. Lara Brown of George Washington University tells The Christian Science Monitor, “and that is against business interests entirely.”

Clinton and Trump have both identified a trend towards protectionism and economic caution favored by some American workers. The former secretary of state has also shifted her stances somewhat, becoming "marginally more protectionist" and critical of the Trans Pacific Partnership, Frank DuBois, an associate professor at the Kogod School of Business at American University, tells the Monitor.  

For the moment, however, "the fact that [former Treasury Secretary] Hank Paulson endorsed Hillary Clinton and not Donald Trump indicates that big business are more comfortable with Clinton policies than Trump policies," says Dr. Brown.

The US Chamber of Commerce in particular condemned Trump’s anti-free trade policies, saying that Trump’s trade strategies could harm the economy.

"The U.S. Chamber represents American businesses of all sizes from across the country, who recognize that free-trade agreements, like the (Trans-Pacific Partnership), are an important way to accelerate economic growth and spur job creation in the U.S.," wrote Chamber of Commerce spokesperson Blair Latoff Holmes in a statement. "This is not personal. It's not election politics. It's smart policy."

Yet many Americans "feel left out of the current economy," Brown says, a demographic worried about outsourcing, in particular – concerns Trump, in particular, has pivoted toward. 

To some extent, however, blaming outsourcing may mask another source of lost or changing jobs: automation and technological advancement. 

As The Christian Science Monitor reported in a five-part series on US trade:

China accounted for about a quarter of the decline in United States manufacturing jobs between 1990 and 2007, according to a 2013 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study by economist David Autor and two coauthors.

But their data also suggest automation is an even bigger culprit for the job loss. Combined, the forces of automation and trade competition since 2000 have decimated blue-collar jobs and the wages they pay. In 2003, the median hourly wage in a US automotive parts factory was $18.35; a decade later it was $15.83.

Despite this election's shifting alliances between business and politics, the changes won't necessarily leave a lasting impact, some analysts say – but they will leave questions. 

"Assuming that Trump is defeated in December, we're going to see a lot of soul searching in the party about who they are and who they want to be when they grow up, so to speak," Dr. DuBois says. 

American University Prof. Dr. Jeffrey Harris adds that while he, too, believes the GOP may have some soul searching to do, he does not see a permanent split between big business and the GOP. 

"I doubt the party will lose business support long term, since it seems fundamental to many GOP members that they represent the free enterprise system as a counterpoint to the Democrats' relatively greater faith in government," said Dr. Harris by email. "For sure, business and perhaps other GOP candidates have done a poor job with engaging Main St Americans on these issues. If free enterprise is to be supported, then that system owes the skeptical public greater accountability."

Both DuBois and Brown believe that the political shift caused by the populist rhetoric during this election is likely temporary, although DuBois says that the Libertarian Party may gain greater public interest. But the real result, they say, could be that politicians are forced to work harder to explain the benefits of free trade.

“In the future, we’re going to see political leaders who are going to be more thoughtful about how they explain the benefits of a liberalized trade policy,” says Brown.

"The greater significance of these policies," says DuBois, is that "they have elevated the discussion such that policymakers are going to have to make a more compelling case for globalized free trade."

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