- By Brian KatulisBrian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security. His past experience includes work at the National Security Council and the departments of State and Defense under the Bill Clinton administration. He also worked for Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Freedom House, and former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey. He is the co-author of The Prosperity Agenda, a book on U.S. national security.
Democrats should dissect President Donald Trump’s “economic nationalism” and offer a more optimistic alternative. In taking on Trump’s perceived strength, Democrats will expose some serious political vulnerabilities in his emerging foreign policy. Doing so may also open some pathways towards forging a consensus with Republicans who are skeptical about Trump’s corrupt crony capitalism and protectionism.
Trump has been wildly erratic and all over the map on key foreign policy issues such as alliances, Russia, the fight against the Islamic State, and the Iran nuclear deal. But he has remained pretty consistent on his “economic nationalism,” which his speech to Congress in February underscored.
Under the banner of “America First,” Trump has positioned himself as a populist in touch with the working class. Trump’s narrative is simple: Foreigners have been taking advantage of the United States and its workers. In Trump’s telling, immigrants are taking America’s jobs, and trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement have gutted America’s economy. In Trump’s worldview, building walls and erecting barriers to commerce will create jobs and revive domestic manufacturing industries.
But Trump’s economic package amounts to what Washington Post columnist David Ignatius called “snake oil to the Rust Belt.” For example, Trump threatened measures that could lead to a trade war with China and other major global economies. He signaled that he might ignore World Trade Organization rulings, which could hurt U.S. companies. Trump White House officials have argued that recent immigration policy shifts are in part intended to protect American workers from foreign competition, in addition to the bogus security rationale.
The administration has also discussed a new border adjustment tax, a measure that faces strong opposition from retailers and other companies that rely on imports. Additionally, Trump has bullied several companies like Ford and Carrier to commit to keeping what is ultimately a small and symbolic number of jobs in the country.
Trump’s instincts on global economic issues will likely end up creating global economic turbulence that could isolate America and kill American jobs. Expelling immigrants and restricting access to America’s labor markets will undercut economic growth, as economist Jared Bernstein recently pointed out.
Democrats will not be able to attack these vulnerabilities if they lack a clear and optimistic economic vision of their own — and that vision can’t stop at the water’s edge. In the absence of an easy-to-understand economic policy narrative, facts alone won’t help Democrats exploit Trump’s weaknesses.
Most critically, Democrats should develop an optimistic economic policy vision to contrast with Trump’s pessimistic economic fantasies — and do so in a way that connects domestic and international economic policies. Trump’s agenda encompasses a wide range of issues, including trade, taxation, immigration, and regulatory policy. It would be a mistake for Democrats to offer tactical responses on each of these fronts without an overarching vision that connects the dots between these issues and provides a hopeful alternative.
The alternative narrative should center on a more positive vision of a rising tide of economic revival that lifts all Americans up and stays true to who we are as a country. Trump’s agenda favors corporations and the rich at the expense of working Americans. Workers would be hurt by Trump’s radical shifts, which would tear apart the social safety net and decrease the investment in education, innovation, and health care that makes America competitive.
Some of Trump’s proposed trade policies could hurt key sectors, like America’s farmers. As North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp has pointed out, reckless trade policies can put American jobs in jeopardy and make America less competitive in key global markets.
In developing this alternative, Democrats should examine more closely what went wrong over the past few years. President Barack Obama’s economic policies saved the country from a second Great Depression, 11 million jobs were created under his watch, and his auto bailout saved an estimated 1.5 million jobs associated with the industry.
These achievements weren’t sufficient to address the sense of dislocation and grievance that many Americans felt. The Obama administration’s top diplomats outlined ideas about “economic statecraft,” but these did not connect with the American public. As Democrats pull together a new economic policy vision, Democrats need to have a shared sense of why.
At minimum, Democrats should come together to define an economic agenda in contrast to Trump’s crony capitalism, which favors corporations at the expense of the workers. Some Democrats have already started to do this. See, for instance, the plan to restore the value of work in America released earlier this month by Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown.
But there are many other ideas from the different wings of the party, and now is the time to bring them together and make sure that the Democratic economic policy does not ignore the rest of the world. As Nina Hachigian has pointed out, the effects of domestic policy don’t stop at the U.S. borders — the investments that the United States makes in education, health care, innovation, and worker empowerment are critical to the country’s global standing and ability to compete in the world. Keeping America as a global economic power, rather than turning inward, is one place where Democrats could build a consensus with Republicans to counter Trump’s foreign policy.
The country faces a tall foreign policy agenda — Russia’s interference in the U.S. elections and the investigation into Team Trump’s shady ties with Moscow should remain a top priority. But when it comes to a debate that matters most to Americans, Democrats need to more clearly take on the global components of Trump’s economic nationalism and offer a more optimistic alternative.
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