Donald Trump’s positions have divided his party for months, but on Tuesday he took his best shot yet at splitting the Democrats with a speech aimed directly at supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders.
Speaking in front of a wall of crushed bottles and cans at a recycling plant in Monessen, Pennsylvania, Trump laid out a speech denouncing trade deals, calling for new tariffs and promising to protect American manufacturing jobs from countries like China and Mexico.
“Globalization has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very, very wealthy -- I used to be one of them, hate to say it, but I used to be one," Trump said. "But it’s left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache."
Trump’s speech echoed positions by Sanders during the primaries, a candidate Trump has previously praised for his skeptical take on free trade. The GOP's presumptive nominee sounded determined to peel off blue collar Democratic voters from Hillary Clinton with his remarks, which avoided his usual inflammatory side issues while portraying the election as a class war between struggling workers and a wealthy investor class.
Likening his campaign to the populist “Brexit” referendum that put the United Kingdom on track to leave the European Union, Trump said he would “declare independence from the elites who led us from one financial and foreign policy disaster to another.”
Trade is an issue that’s divided both parties for decades, and a number of candidates who espoused free trade at other points in their career tweaked their platforms this cycle to appeal to voters convinced relaxed trade barriers have depressed wages and sent jobs overseas.
As Trump noted in his remarks, Clinton evolved on the issue while running for president. She championed the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal as secretary of state and in her memoirs after leaving office, but turned against it in the primaries, citing “unanswered questions” about its impact on workers in an October interview with PBS.
“Hillary Clinton was totally for the TPP just a short while ago, but when she saw my stance, which is totally against, she was shamed into saying she would be against it, too,” Trump said.
Trump was right that Clinton faced political pressure to back off TPP – but it was from the left, not from Trump. Sanders used the issue as a wedge between Clinton and union workers and excoriated his primary opponent over her waffling on the issue. On the trail, he referred to Clinton as an “outsourcer in chief.”
Like Sanders, Trump challenged Clinton’s dependability on trade and predicted she would return to her neoliberal ways once in office. He challenged the media to press Clinton on whether she would walk away from TPP as president and "unconditionally rule out its passage in any form."
Clinton’s shift to the left on trade created an odd dynamic Tuesday. Rather than rebut Trump’s broader argument, Clinton’s economic policy advisor Michael Shapiro accused Trump of “taking right from [Clinton’s] playbook on trade” by opposing TPP and calling for stricter enforcement of trade deals.
Clinton has accused Trump in the past of going too far, however, arguing he would create a “trade war” with China that experts warn could damage the economy if they retaliate with new tariffs of their own.
“We already have a trade war and we're losing – badly,” Trump said, responding to Clinton Tuesday.
The Clinton campaign and its allies primarily tried to undermine Trump’s credibility on trade issues based on his personal history in response to his speech. It accused Trump of hypocrisy on outsourcing, for example. Many of the branded products that bare his name are manufactured abroad, which Trump said in a Republican debate was necessary due to cheaper labor costs. He also published a blog post in 2005 that defended outsourcing as a net plus for the economy: “[I]n this instance I have to take the unpopular stance that it is not always a terrible thing,” Trump wrote.
“Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton came around to our position and now opposes the TPP,” AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka said in a statement. “With our help, she’s never going back. Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump opposes the TPP, too, although he says outsourcing creates jobs, so who knows where he really stands.”
But if Trump’s position scrambles Democratic Party lines, it does the same for Republicans, whose business wing and traditional stable of policy experts overwhelmingly view free trade as a positive force that boosts economic growth, reduces prices on consumer goods and promotes diplomacy.
While Clinton and Trump fought for the same populist space, traditional conservative allies jumped in to challenge Trump on the merits of his remarks. The Chamber of Commerce issued a scathing response to his speech, claiming his policies would create a trade war that would “make America recession-bound again.”
The question now is whether Trump’s gambit actually can peel off Democratic voters given his weak position in the polls and divisive positions on other topics. At the very least Sanders, whose supporters Trump is courting, sounded concerned on Tuesday.
“The notion that Donald Trump could benefit from the same forces that gave the Leave proponents a majority in Britain should sound an alarm for the Democratic Party in the United States,” Sanders wrote in a New York Times op-ed published shortly after Trump’s speech. “Millions of American voters, like the Leave supporters, are understandably angry and frustrated by the economic forces that are destroying the middle class.”