President Trump’s formal withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, fulfilling an “on day one” campaign promise, merely adds the tombstone to an already dug grave. Bipartisan opposition from Congress prevented the TPP from a final vote that supporters knew they would lose. As Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said Monday, “TPP was dead long before President Trump took office. We await real action on trade.”
Before that real action comes, we should note the importance of the political shift. The debate about the TPP, the first major debate on the US-led globalization agenda in over two decades, revealed a crumbled consensus. The public recognized that free-trade deals aren’t about free trade anymore—tariffs are currently so low it would be hard to get them meaningfully lower—but about guaranteeing corporate profits through eliminating regulations and enforcing patents. Another deal written in secret, with lobbyists whispering in negotiators’ ears, gave nobody confidence that this would change. Secret enforcement tribunals were a prime target for criticism, because they protect corporate and investor profits and enable financial speculation. No such platform exists for workers if their rights are violated.
The populist revolt against this unbalanced framework favoring elite corporations over citizens really started within the Democratic rank and file. President Obama’s relentless TPP salesmanship damaged Hillary Clinton’s electoral hopes, but before Election Day, virtually every major figure in the party had abandoned the TPP. The activist outcry made passage in Congress impossible, despite the agreement being inked in October 2015. Democratic governance defeated the TPP; Trump just supplied the paperwork after the fact.
Where does this leave us? This is a rare area where Trump has articulated a consistent agenda. Trump has announced intentions to schedule meetings with the heads of state of Canada and Mexico, with the purpose of renegotiating NAFTA, which he blames for the decline of US manufacturing. (The extension of permanent normal trade relations with China had much more to do with it.) Even before that, Trump will meet with British Prime Minister Theresa May, in talks intended to move toward a US-UK trade deal that would accompany Britain’s exit from the European Union. Why bilateral deals should be preferred over multilateral ones is unclear, but Trump has promised they would result in untold riches for America.