Donald Trump’s assault on free trade poses a problem for the GOP South

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a Tuesday campaign stop at Alumisource, a metals recycling facility in Monessen, Pa. Donald Trump’s break with decades of conservative economic thinking on the value of free trade comes as the Republican party is increasingly relying on older, downscale white voters who are the most skeptical of trade deals and have lost out during an age of globalization. AP /Keith Srakocic

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a Tuesday campaign stop at a metals recycling facility in Monessen, Pa.  Trump’s break with decades of conservative economic thinking on the value of free trade comes as the GOP is increasingly relying on older, downscale white voters who have lost out during an age of globalization. AP /Keith Srakocic

If you are a Georgia Republican of any rank, perhaps you don’t worry about Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims. It polls well among the people who elect you.

A high wall at the Mexico border? Heck, yeah! Unless, of course, you’re into agriculture, in which case you might forego the exclamation mark.

But when the presumed GOP presidential nominee talks of a trade war with China, scoffs at economic ties to South Korea, and says this race for the White House is a contest between “globalism” and “Americanism” — then you have to pause and pay attention.

Because if there is a single theme to 14 years of Republican rule in Georgia, it is the economic orientation of this state toward a world with fewer trade barriers. Hundreds of millions of dollars and boatloads of political capital have been spent to achieve it. The philosophy behind such expenditures: When we trade, we win.

Trump has a slightly different take: When we trade, we’re cheated.

Last Tuesday, days after an enlarged Panama Canal debuted, promising stronger economic ties with Asia, Trump was at an aluminum recycling plant south of Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania and Ohio are must-haves for the billionaire if he’s to win the White House in November.

Key to each Rust Belt state are white voters, especially men, who have become unmoored since so much heavy manufacturing fled to foreign shores.

Gerry Del Rio, a project manager, briefs Gov. Nathan Deal on the expansion of the Panama Canal in Colón, Panama in 2013. Greg Bluestein, gbluestein@ajc.com

Gerry Del Rio, a project manager, briefs Gov. Nathan Deal on the expansion of the Panama Canal in Colón, Panama in 2013. Greg Bluestein, gbluestein@ajc.com

“Our workers’ loyalty was repaid… with total betrayal. Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization, moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas,” Trump said Monessen, Pa. “Globalization has made the financial elite, who donate to politicians, very, very wealthy. I used to be one of them.”

On Thursday, in New Hampshire, home to more emptied plants, the Republican presumptive offered a similar message – with uglier undertones. “Global financiers — and they’re all controlling her,” Trump said. “They have a hundred percent – they might as well stamp ‘Hillary Clinton’ on their forehead. They have total control over her.”

Trump avoided code words that might have been used decades ago, but the remarks had a familiar ring — and a sentiment that we don’t need to see returned to American politics.

That said, Trump’s target audience has a legitimate beef. We haven’t taken care of those who have lost out in the globalization transaction. It is Trump’s solution that is problematic — the return of American manufacturing through the enactment of a host of carrots and sticks at the U.S. border. Mostly sticks.

Trump’s message has bite in the Rust Belt because those jobs were a union-backed, middle-class mainstay. One steelworker’s salary could support a family. Good times and good jobs are missed.

But the South went in a different direction. Our manufacturing base disappeared, too. Nearly every other small town had a textile mill, built around a non-union labor force paid as little as possible. When those jobs disappeared in the ‘70s and ‘80s, a conscious decision was made not to chase them.

Instead, we moved in a different direction. We sought foreign investment. Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, and eventually Georgia, landed automobile manufacturing plants with auslander roots that became a Southern manufacturing baseline. The selling point: Easy access to U.S. consumers and to foreign-made parts shipped in via local ports.

Agricultural exports were emphasized, too. Georgia ships more wood pulp and poultry to China than any state in the nation. (Chicken feet are a delicacy there.)

Politically, no Georgia Republican has more invested in our current economic direction than Gov. Nathan Deal. A hallmark of his first term was the partnership he formed with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat, in order to win federal funding for the dredging of the Port of Savannah — so it would be prepared for those larger container ships that began coming through the Panama Canal last week.

House Bill 170, which increased road and bridge repair funding by nearly $1 billion a year, was passed by the Legislature last year — with Deal’s endorsement. Sold to voters as an anti-congestion measure, the business community understood it as a guarantee that goods shipped to Savannah would have smooth passage to Atlanta and points beyond. Eight percent of all jobs in Georgia have a tie to the Port of Savannah.

The contrast between what Donald Trump says and what Georgia Republicans do is a delicate topic, judging by the silence. We approached Chris Carr, former chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and commissioner of the state Department of Economic Development — but he deferred to the governor.

So we contacted Deal’s staff and asked for the governor’s input, and were told he had better things to do.

Chris Clark, president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber, was willing to jump into the fray. “We’re not involved in presidential politics, but we do need a president focused on selling Georgia grown and made products around the world,” he said in a text message. “The last thing Georgia workers and farmers and makers need is a trade war just as we’re entering new markets all over the world. We believe we can balance protecting Georgia jobs and consumers.”

Governor Deal will have other opportunities to address Trump and trade. He leaves for a trade mission to Germany later this month, then will head to Cleveland for the Republican National Convention.

But this isn’t just a question of whether you agree or disagree with the man you have endorsed for president on a very important topic. The real danger for economies like Georgia’s comes when trade is made into such a radioactive word that any agreement becomes a political liability unworthy of support.

If that happens, Trump won’t be the only one at fault. This week, Jim Barksdale, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, chastised the Republican incumbent. Among the charges: “Isakson’s support for bad foreign trade deals, tax breaks allowing corporations to outsource our jobs, and votes to deregulate Wall Street has hurt our economy,” the Barksdale campaign said.

Trade protection can mean so many things, including the protection of trade itself.


View Comments 0

%d bloggers like this: