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Donald Trump's vow to rip up free trade agreements and return America to "economic independence" is not only a strident counter to President Obama’s calls for a more interconnected world, but an illustration of a broader debate between advocates of globalization and those who oppose it.
“You can look at Trump’s campaign as one big push-back against globalization, and the Britain vote too,” said Daniel Cox, director of research at the Public Religion Research Institute, a non-partisan group that analyzes cultural, religious and political trends in the U.S.
In a speech last week, Trump criticized a “leadership class that worships globalism over Americanism.”
The next day, Obama, in a speech following a meeting with other North American leaders in Canada, warned that pulling out of trade deals "is the wrong medicine for dealing with inequality."
Such comments reflect a backlash, particularly on the right, to a long-held belief by party elites in the U.S. and Europe that open borders, pro-immigration policies, increased trade and overall international cooperation are the best ways to improve the global economy.
But with immigrants fleeing the rise of ISIS and the Syrian civil war and seeking to live abroad, some voters in both the United States and Europe have become more wary of immigration and economic integration. While not the only issue at the core of the British referendum to leave the European Union, immigration was certainly at the campaign’s center.
A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings Institution found that a majority of Americans (52 percent) view free-trade agreements as harmful and that a majority of Americans (55 percent) believe that "The American way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence."
Political leaders, from Trump and Bernie Sanders in the U.S. to the German critics of Chancellor Angela Merkel, are increasingly breaking with that elite consensus on trade and immigration as well.
There is increased attention from politicians of all ideologies on the stagnant wages of many workers in the West. The lack of raises and the growing income inequality in Western nations is not caused solely by globalization, experts say. The decline of labor unions and the growth of technology and automation are seen as leading culprits. But this lack of progress for many everyday workers has happened at the same time as increased globalization.
“Economic and cultural resentments are reinforcing each other right now. The changing nature of the global economy is leading to wage polarization, and those at the losing end feel increasingly insecure about the future at the very moment in which they see people speaking foreign tongues moving in down the street,” said Lee Drutman, a political scientist who works on a political reform program at New America, a D.C.-based think tank.
“They hear warnings from a new generation of right-wing populists there won't be enough to go around anymore unless they keep out the foreigners,” he added.
In America, this tension is seen in the debate over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the agreement President Obama is trying to reach on trade and other economic matters with 11 nations in the Pacific Rim.
The divide on the TPP is not really along partisan lines.
Instead, some Republicans and Democrats, like Trump and Sanders, argue these kinds of agreements are driving down the wages of American workers, while a competing camp that includes Obama and the conservative Chamber of Commerce say the United States’ economic growth is dependent upon selling products made here abroad.
“Our friends in Britain recently voted to take back control of their economy, politics and borders,” Trump said Tuesday.
If elected, he promised, “America will be independent once more. Independent once more. Doesn’t that sound great?”
Voters have become even more wary of globalization and immigration amid the rise of ISIS and the refugee crisis caused in part by the Syrian civil war. Millions of people, many of who are Muslims, are seeking to enter Western Europe and the United States. Many Republicans in the United States, particularly Trump, have strongly opposed more refugees coming here, arguing there is a strong risk of unwittingly admitting someone who is sympathetic to ISIS.
And there remains discomfort in America with Islam. A PRRI-Brookings poll found that 57 percent of Americans say the values of Islam are at odds with American values, including about 80 percent of Republicans and Trump supporters.
“Throughout the 2000s, Europe lived under fear of Al-Qaeda. There was the Madrid Bombing in 2004, the London bombing in 2005. Is ISIS worse? Or does ISIS and the Syrian refugee crisis come at a time when economic and cultural anxieties are making a growing number of people feel insecure generally, and thus more fearful of any threat?” said Drutman.
In the view of Obama and Merkel, Muslims can be integrated into Western society, the same way other groups have in the past. Germany accepted about 1 million asylum seekers last year.
“We've had times throughout our history where anti-immigration sentiment is exploited by demagogues,” the president said at a news conference in Ottawa, Canada on Wednesday with the leaders of Mexico and Canada. It was Obama’s latest bromide against Trump, even though he did not refer to the Republican candidate by name.
He added, “It was directed at the Irish. It was directed at Poles and Italians. And you can go back and read what was said about those groups and it's identical to what they’re now saying about Mexicans or Guatemalans or Salvadorians or Muslims or Asians. Same stuff: ‘They’re different.’ ‘They’re not going to fit.’ ‘They won't assimilate.’ ‘They bring crime.’ Same arguments.”
Merkel, in a speech last year, said, “Countries have always benefited from successful immigration, both economically and socially.”
Many citizens aren't so sure, and Obama seems aware that his side is not winning the globalization argument. Even as he continually criticizes Trump, the president is acknowledging the concerns of voters here and abroad who have doubts about globalization.
“If the benefits of globalization accrue only to those at the very top, if our democracies seem incapable of assuring broad-based growth and opportunity for everyone, then people will push back, out of anger or out of fear,” the president said in a speech to the Canadian parliament on Wednesday night.
He added, “And politicians — some sincere, and some entirely cynical — will tap that anger and fear, harkening back to bygone days of order and predictability and national glory, arguing that we must rebuild walls and disengage from a chaotic world, or rid ourselves of the supposed ills brought on by immigrants — all in order to regain control of our lives.”
But the president, experts say, may be fighting an anxiety that is deep and entrenched.
“We’ve seen in the U.S. dramatic changes in the racial, ethnic and religious composition of the country and that is instilling serious anxiety,” said Cox. “There’s been a confluence of cultural change and economic stagnation.”