For a moment on Tuesday night, you could almost glimpse a serious general-election candidate on the stage at Trump Tower in Manhattan.
Never mind the strip-club lighting or the Duck Dynasty guy smiling in the background. Having successfully blocked Ted Cruz’s path to 1,237 delegates, Donald Trump previewed a powerful general-election message against Hillary Clinton: He bashed her husband’s administration for signing the North American Free Trade agreement and tagged Hillary as a candidate bought by Wall Street.
Whether by accident or design, Trump has understood like few others seeking the presidency what a powerful factor trade-related job loss is. Just this week, a landmark study confirmed that areas walloped by the loss of jobs to outsourcing and imports were much more likely to move either far to the right or far to the left when it came time to vote. “Exposure to import competition is bad for centrists,” one researcher told The New York Times. “We’ve known that political polarization and income inequality track each other, but that pattern is simply a correlation. We’ve now found a mechanism for how economic changes create further political divisions.”
In a remarkable confluence of events, Trump has come along as a self-funded candidate able to buck GOP orthodoxy on trade and exploit this issue in a general election at the very moment Republicans appear poised to run against Hillary Clinton, who is inextricably tied to the legacy of NAFTA.
Trump’s self-funding also allows him to bash Clinton for her donors in the financial sector. “Hillary Clinton is funded by Wall Street,” he said bluntly Tuesday.
In many ways, this is absurd and unfair to Clinton—while she has verifiably taken quite a bit of money from Wall Street, both for her campaign and herself personally, she is certain to be much tougher on Wall Street than Trump would, based on their respective plans for the financial sector (to the extent Trump has outlined any). It’s also not entirely clear that Clinton is the crusading free-trader Trump believes she is, though her constant and byzantine shifts on the issue, along with the omnipresence of Bill Clinton on the campaign trail, has no doubt confused voters about what she believes, perhaps hopelessly.