2016 Elections

Donald Trump's Beautiful Siren Song

His campaign is a quarter century too late.


Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Have you seen the new 30-second Trump campaign ad? Here's the text:

What's happening in the world economy is like a hockey game, where others guard their goal to keep our products out while we leave our net open. It's cost us jobs and destroyed companies. We're becoming a low-wage nation. And all Barack Obama can do is go to China and beg for a few concessions. I'm Donald Trump. And if I'm president the time for begging is through. I'll tell China that if we can't sell in their market, they can't sell in ours. And if they don't get the message, they'll find out that this president can play a little defense too.

(Announcer) Fight back, America.

If you're wondering why there's such a linear, logical progression to the text, it's because Trump didn't say it. I just swapped in his name. The ad actually ran in the 1992 New Hampshire primary. The presidential candidate making the pitch was Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey, who abandoned both his protectionist pitch and his campaign soon after. I also substituted Obama for George H.W. Bush and China for Japan. Otherwise the words are the same.

At the time, Japan loomed as the American job destroyer. One Kerrey primary opponent, Bill Clinton, told a group of New Hampshire workers that he wouldn't be able to get lost factory jobs back, but as president he'd make sure they could train for new jobs. For many Americans, that didn't work out so well.

Trump's anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim rants, and his periodic bouts of sexism and petulance (or sexist petulance), generate media attention. But much of his campaign is focused on protecting jobs, especially high-wage manufacturing jobs, through the magic of superior deal-making.

As the Kerrey ad confirms, he's at least a quarter century too late.

How Americans embarked, some strategically, some cynically, many unwittingly, on the great adventure of globalization is an epic tale worth telling. But a vast chunk of the narrative is already written. China is a different land, and economy, now. So is the U.S. Many factories that used to be here are now there.

"The last twenty years of trade have been pretty unprecedented in their impact on U.S. labor markets," said MIT economist David Autor, via e-mail. Citing a 2013 paper co-written  by Autor, the Washington Post's Matt O'Brien wrote that between 1990 and 2007 the U.S. lost about 1.5 million manufacturing jobs to China alone.  

This transformation can't be undone through better deal-making, even if you believe Trump's claim to singular genius and his diagnosis of a perpetual I.Q. deficiency at the highest ranks of the U.S. government, which of course you shouldn't.  

In the Atlantic, Molly Ball wrote that "Trumpism is an ideology, not just a catharsis." I understand what she's getting at. I transcribed much of Trump's hourlong Feb. 7 speech in Plymouth, New Hampshire, to focus on his actual arguments, which largely rest on recognizable ideological platforms -- protectionism, neo-isolationism (with a side of General Curtis LeMay) and his leading pitch, nativism.

But Trumpism may primarily be an ideology of catharsis. For people who have felt powerless to control their fate, a cohort that bleeds from blue collars into white, he is holding out the promise of relief from the disruptive whims, destructive furies and basic unfairness of global capital. Under President Trump, you can exhale, relieved of the constant anxiety that paying the mortgage depends on whether the company you work for is pulling up stakes tomorrow.

Trump offers a cartoon version of how people robbed of breath and autonomy might picture the executive suites miles above their own cubicles. Congress doesn't exist in Trumpland, where Trump is all-powerful, and business lobbies are humble courtiers. Here's Trump describing how he would stop Ford Motor Company from moving a factory to Mexico:

I wouldn't let it happen. I wouldn't let it happen. But let's say Hillary -- ach, can you believe it?  I will say this. I don't agree with Bernie Sanders on much. Although I agree with him on two things: trade. On trade he said we're being ripped off he just doesn't know how much. I know how much. Bigger than he even thinks. The difference is I can fix the trade and I'm gonna make a lot of money with trade whereas he can't do anything about it. He just knows we're being ripped off. So he's got half of it but he doesn't have the other half. But he's right with Hillary because she's -- look, she's receiving a fortune from a lot of people. There's no way she's going to tell Ford to do anything. Because I know people that donate to her. She can't do it. She can't do it. If she wanted to do it she can't do it.

So here's what happens. So I say I'm not gonna let that happen. Ford's not moving. Because we have a lot of power. If we want to use it.

Much of the rest of Trump's narrative consists of his imagined conversations with Ford executives and other fictional, well-connected power players, and his warning to them that he will unilaterally impose a 35 percent tariff on "every car, every truck, every part that you bring across our border." (Sanders is a free trader compared with Trump.) These fantasias always commence with some meek special pleader beseeching, "Mr. President . . . ."

The world of hidden power is a world of phone calls among phenomenally wealthy manipulators, all of whom know one another. Trump understands how this game of telephone proceeds. And he alone knows how it ends. "They're going to call me back within 48 hours, and they're going to say, 'Mr. President, we've decided to build the plant in the United States.' And I'll say, 'Thank you. Thank you.'"

Trump's fantasy of power is the gateway to his equally fantastic vow to turn back the clock to an era when middle-class jobs were plentiful. It's different from the promise offered by other Republican leaders, who insist that a resort to traditional values and low taxes on the wealthy are the chief lines of American defense.

Voters recognize that American values -- conservative or liberal -- have failed to subdue a global labor market that no longer values the work that millions of Americans do. And low taxes on the wealthy, which Trump supports but doesn't highlight, have largely been a boon to the already rich.

Trump genuflects before familiar Republican icons -- supply-side tax cuts, God, guns, gays. But he shows no real interest in them. His siren song is the piercing bellow of an abandoned factory whistle.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.