The Big Political Issue Shaking Under Our Feet in the Presidential Election

The corporate media in America seems astonished that Donald Trump is polling so well among Republican voters and even independents. They shouldn’t be.


Remember Ross Perot? Funny little billionaire with big ears and a squeaky voice? A well-regarded but geriatric running mate? Nobody took him seriously, as he was basically a one-issue candidate, and kept saying “crazy” things like that George H.W. Bush’s people were planning to disrupt his daughter’s wedding and that, as a billionaire, he knew “how to get things done.”

Perot took almost 20 percent of the vote in the 1992 general election. Had he been a more polished candidate with a reasonable running mate, he may well have won the thing with more than a third of the vote.

Perot’s one issue was the same one Donald Trump keeps bringing up, and that the corporate media keeps ignoring: trade.

From the George Washington administration to the Reagan administration, our nation pretty much always had a trade surplus. When Reagan came into office, we were the world’s largest importer of raw materials, and the world’s largest exporter of finished, manufactured goods. We imported iron ore and wool, and exported TVs, cars, socks, shirts and Levi jeans. We were the world’s largest creditor -- we even loaned other countries money to buy our manufactured goods, through a slick little device called the Export-Import Bank.

But today, after 35 years of Reaganism and so-called “free trade,” America is now the world’s largest importer of finished, manufactured goods, and the world’s leading exporter of raw materials. We ship iron ore, coal and wood to China, and get it back in the form of computers in nice cardboard boxes.

We are also now the world’s largest debtor nation, net-in-debt to the rest of the world to the tune of $11 trillion -- our trade debt -- with an annual trade deficit that floats around $500 billion. Unlike our national debt, which is mostly owed to ourselves, our trade debt cannot be paid off by raising taxes on the rich, or inflated away by printing more dollars. It’s real, hard money, that we owe the rest of the world. And it’s killing us, as Public Citizen and other great groups clearly point out.

Ross Perot, it turns out, was right. Every trade deal we’ve entered into in the past 30 years has lost us jobs, industries and good wages. When Reagan came into office the nation’s largest employer was General Motors, and they paid high-school graduates a solid $40-$50/hour (in today’s dollars) with benefits and job security. Today, our nation’s largest employer is Walmart, with an average pay of around $9/hour -- and even GM is hiring new workers at $14/hour. As Bernie Sanders points out, our trade policies have been largely responsible for the loss of over 60,000 factories just in the past 15 years alone.

Donald Trump understands this, as does any businessperson who regularly travels between the US and Mexico, China, or any of the other countries to which we’ve outsourced our jobs. And he’s speaking bluntly about it to anybody who will listen.

Sure, his bashing of Mexican immigrants without documentation is stirring up part of the racist Republican base (and, apparently, drawing I-Heart-Donalds from Ted Cruz). And it's catnip for the media. But listen carefully to the applause lines when Trump speaks; his immigrant-bashing gets nothing compared to his pointing out that our trade policies are “stupid” and “insane” and that he's going to bring those factories and jobs back home from Mexico and China.

The only other serious candidate running for president right now who points out the failure of our free-trade policies is Bernie Sanders. And while it pains me to put him in the same article as Trump (Sanders is a serious statesman; Trump is a carnival barker), Bernie, like Trump, is drawing huge crowds.

Americans know we’ve been screwed by the free-traders like Reagan, both Bushs and Clinton. Average working people get it instantly. Anybody old enough to remember America before Reagan needs no prompting to go off on a tirade about how dropping our tariffs while other countries like China, Germany and South Korea keep trade barriers in place has killed much of the American industrial base and, with it, the American middle class.

But our corporate media – owned, in large part, by multinational corporations that also benefit handsomely from international trade (particularly with copyright monopolies) – will not discuss it.

Meanwhile, because that $11 trillion trade deficit represents overseas dollars that can only be finally spent here in the US, fully a seventh of all US assets are now foreign-owned. A Chinese state-owned company reportedly just made an offer to buy Micron, the last memory-chip maker of any size left in the United States. We’re selling off our businesses and properties to buy cheap clothes and electronics made in Mexico and Asia.

We need a serious discussion in this country about trade, like we had in 1992 (only now we know how it all turned out). 

If the media won’t touch it, and other candidates don’t start seriously engaging in the issue, the Donald may just ride popular disgust (among voters of both parties) to the Republican nomination. Or, as a third-party candidate, pull a Ross Perot and suck up 20 – or 30 percent or more – of the vote in the general election.

Our media and politicians need to stop the denial of the errors of both Republican and Democratic administrations over the past 40 years, and seriously discuss and re-evaluate everything from Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China, to our membership in the WTO, and our so-called “free trade” deals like NAFTA, CAFTA, and the upcoming SHAFTA (Southern Hemisphere Asian Free Trade Agreement, also known as the TPP).

And anybody who seriously wants to become president of the United States need only repudiate so-called free trade to get a serious hearing from the American working-class electorate.

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