#NeverTrump? The question is #WhyTrump?

In a first, guest contributor journalist B.J. Bethel explains how the Donald Trump phenomenon has been decades in the making.

Guest post by: B.J. Bethel

Third-party movements are nothing new in US presidential elections, and aren’t as rare as one would believe. What is rare is for a third-party movement to strike fire within one of the two established parties.

Essentially, this is the accomplishment of Donald Trump. A portion of the party’s constituency is mad as hell, and isn’t going to take it anymore, and has found its voice in the Donald – wealth inheritor, real estate tycoon, multiple bankrupter- the last person to lead a working-class populist uprising.

Crippling the Republican Party

Many are clamoring at Trump’s audacity, the calls for a border wall; banning Muslim immigrants, and the other awful things he’s said, and universally ignored what’s been the biggest factor in his rise. They raid his rallies, interrupting them with protests. One tried running on stage. A rally in Chicago turned into a riot. (As someone who has covered many a politician and knows how difficult it is to get into a rally with a press pass, let alone with the intention of making a ruckus, maybe the protesters should ask themselves why they seem to get in so easy) .

Trump just didn’t show up at a rally or debate, and start making people angry. This is a phenomena building for 25 years, beginning with the rise of talk show host Rush Limbaugh, and his numerous carbon copies, moving along to the advent of Fox News and the Internet. The conservative movement has profited from and had success with an incessant rage machine that’s pumped money, intensity and voters into elections for two decades. This coalesced into the Tea Party.

The Tea Party was an honest grassroots movement. It grew out of Porkbusters and other small, internet based conservative and libertarian activist groups that emerged after the bank bailout. Middle and working classes were both enraged. After years of preaching from conservatives on the evil of welfare, handouts and championing law and order; the bailout was a step too far. Quickly donors and the party saw something they could use to their advantage, and the organizing began and the money followed. The Democrats took a historic beating in the 2010 midterms, and the GOP was well on its way to making Barack Obama a one-term president.

White working class – plaything of the right, ignored by left (pictured Archie Bunker)

Except the GOP never understood the nature of the grievances held by those voters. When angry Baby Boomers and senior citizens (caustically mocked by those in the coastal media for their preference for baseball caps, polo shirts and cargo shorts), began appearing at town halls, they were mad about health care law that might cut Medicare and Social Security benefits – not exactly a conservative position.

Trump’s following is built primarily from disenchanted working and middle class whites who see both parties selling them out for trade deals that benefit Wall Street and wreck Main Street. Clinton passed NAFTA and GATT, the Republicans let companies offshore without a fight, now both parties are working hard to get the largely secretive TPP agreement – a 12-country NAFTA for the Asia-Pacific region – passed with as little scrutiny as possible.

Trump’s strategy when he speaks has been to generate enough vitriol to dominate the news cycle. He can do this at appearances and with his Twitter account, making CNN perhaps the most important member of his constituency.

The other half of his typical stump speech consists strictly of economic talk – focused directly on trade and offshoring. Facts are, worker productivity and hours have skyrocketed in the last 40 years, along with health care costs. Plummeting are wages and benefits. Thirty years ago, a family of three could live a middle-class lifestyle with one working spouse – all while preparing retirement. Those days are history.

This is the core of the Trump message, the part Democrats and Republicans don’t want to talk or deal with. This would mean going against their main constituency, the donor machine, Wall Street, K Street lobbying, which lies in direct opposition to the working class on nearly every treaty, law and court ruling the last 30 years.

What are the stakes? The two-party system as it now exists. During prior third-party runs, if these candidates carry serious support, generally one of the parties would adopt their key issue as their own. Ross Perot took home nearly 20 percent of the vote in 1992, largely on the strength of concern over the national debt. Republicans adopted much of his agenda when they ran and won Congress in 1994.

Would a party do this on trade, jobs and offshoring? This would clash with the desires of big donors, big business and big finance.

When groups with politically unpopular concerns are left out of the process in Europe (the biggest issue of late immigration), the tendency is for far-right movements to grow. The US can avoid this result by one or both parties giving them a seat at the table. This means looking money in the face and saying no – when was the last time a politician did that?

B.J. Bethel is a journalist living in Ohio. He’s covered government, politics, sports and the environment for a decade.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership looks increasingly doomed – and possibly with good reason

Not only is US congress reasserting its right to oversee an agreement whose details have been kept secret from it but the period of trade deal mania may be passing. That’s because the period of globalization may be drawing to an end. Sure, global trade continues. But there is a Balkanization going on. Russia and China are drifting further from Western trade institutions. The China-Japan tensions are likely to have a lasting effect on East Asian trade. As Russia’s economy falters its reliance on coercion grows. At the same time, the US is looking decidedly inward, after the post-9/11 age. In this climate, the value of trade deals remains dubious. And as US trade expert/globalization-scoffer Clyde Prestowitz elucidates on the TPP: 

“Congress is saying that free trade deals now truly have to be about trade and not about reassuring allies of U.S. commitment to them. No longer will Congress agree to buy allies with distorted and lopsided trade deals. The end of American hegemony will be mourned by many around the world and in America, but it is likely to be a very good thing for U.S. workers and the American middle class.”

Further, the WikiLeaks TPP leak shows how US corporates are fashioning a sweetheart deal for themselves in the area of IP trade negotiations. This group is already on the bad side of US citizens after decades of gaming the economy against them. Now companies want to have their legal wishlist enshrined in a pan-Pacific trade deal.

“The extent of this unbalanced influence and how it works can be seen in the contents of the leaks. The deal being proposed apparently includes measures like those contained in the Stop OnLine Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act that have already failed once to achieve passage in Congress… Clearly what is afoot is that the non-transparent TPP talks are being used to make an end run around the Congress and the parliaments and publics of many countries to achieve far reaching special rights in the guise of free trade.”

It also raises an intriguing question: should the US look to trade as the best way to reassure allies in the region? Compare the trends emerging in the past three decades in the US and hold them up against what’s happening with China. In the US business has assumed a prime place in society since the time of Reagan. Even the Supreme Court has upheld corporations’ “right” to free speech. (Is this really what the American Revolution was about?) But now incomes in the US are dangerously unequal, thanks in large part to a system in which capitalism has effectively eroded democracy. China meanwhile is aggressively growing its economy and trying to find a balance between state control and some form of citizen’s right. Its economy is dangerously unequal, as well.

More crucially, China’s government relies on secrecy as a strategy. The more powerful it grows, the more uncertainty and ambiguity it can foist onto global affairs (We want peace with our neighbors/we want revenge on Japan-duality, etc). What the US can offer as a strategic counterbalance is transparency. The world craves it. But engaging in secret trade negotiations over the TPP runs counter to a long-term US strategy.

Even though business has essentially driven politics in recent years in the US, it’s likely that will the difficulties faced in the US economy, politics will move business. Obamacare is the biggest example of that. History runs in cycles and in the US, just as deregulation hastened the decline of the middle class, re-regulation in key areas may assist its restoration. This represents a switch from the concept of people as citizens, rather than people as consumers. In China, too, there is a tentative effort to embrace a kind of civil society (while cracking down on journalists- there is that duality, again).

In this period of reform on both sides of the Pacific, if the US wants to send a signal to non-China Asia, maybe the US should consider an agreement less about trade and more about codes of conduct in diplomacy and security with a measure of transparency. The last thing the US would want is to shackle citizens of Pacific countries with the kind of onerous trade laws that undermine their own rights. If the outlook for the TPP is uncertain, it could be because the agreement is founded on an already-dated understanding of how to achieve international influence.

Further, if war is possible, then US business is wrong to think it can piggy-back its needs onto the needs of the US as it contends with the turbulent region. How thoroughly 1995.

Trans-Pacific Partnership: It’s not just about secrecy, it’s about countering China

The US has finally stated the real urgency behind an agreement on the much-loathed Trans-Pacific Partnership: China.

Comments by US Trade Representative Michael Froman, which originally appeared in a Bloomberg story but were referenced from the Wall Street Journal (deep behind a paywall), quoted Froman as saying about the TPP:

‘‘We’re not the only ones out there,’’ Froman said…citing other trade deals emerging in Asia that include a prospective pact among China, Japan and South Korea. ‘‘The question isn’t whether we’re going to open these markets or we’re not. It’s, we’re either going to open them on our terms or they’re going to be open on other people’s terms.’’Froman said it’s ‘‘infinitely better’’ for the U.S. to be involved to help set standards and trade rules in Asia.

And he may have a point there. The TPP is designed to counter the influence of Chinese state-owned-enterprises on global trade. SOEs are the messy combination of China’s government and big business. The Chinese themselves want to reform them and better separate private business from government influence. It’s a big question whether they will be able to.

The pressure is on for the US. Because the Chinese are pushing yet another free-trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, that would come with a lot fewer labor, health and environment requirements. It would be much more accomodating to the Chinese view of business.

Yet, there is also chatter about China actually supporting the TPP and using it as a crutch/incentive for its own painful internal reforms of its SOEs and various unproductive sectors of its own economy. Basically, like they did with the WTO and we all know closely China observes the rules of the WTO particularly in the areas of intellectual property.

For the US, the TPP is designed to be a large part of the “rules-based order” central to the US vision of the Asia “Pivot.”

Unfortunately, the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement discussions have run into opposition from Western good-governance groups and NGOs over the opacity of the negotiations and the threat to digital rights and drug pricing schemes, not to mention sovereignty issues for courts.

If the rules the TPP is founded on are fair, and not a sweetheart deal to big corporations which, lets face it, have been the biggest civil disobedient in the West in recent years, then the TPP would be a positive development for Asia and for the world.

The TPP could potentially build a framework around a dynamic area and prevent the more kleptocratic elements of Chinese business and political culture from becoming a regional and global norm. It’s really a question of which side can reform more quickly the US or China. And whether the region will move in a rules-based legal direction or more of a Chinese-styled status-based direction.

We’ll see. But the clock is running down on the self-imposed deadline for Obama. And Congress is reasserting oversight over trade, too.

On trade pacts and political blocs – Japan and the Trans-Pacific Partnership

In as much as trade-pacts are future political blocs, the US and Japan will still have some ways to go before they form a trade bloc, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, comprising 40 per cent of the global economy.

But for now, the US has officially allowed Japan to join the talks on the creation of the 11-member group. 

The White House and Japan’s Shinzo Abe are keen to hash out the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as a bulwark against China’s emerging economic dominance.

Abe, himself, highlighted the urgency, according to AFP:

“I want our participation in the negotiations to come into force quickly so we can play a critical role in defining the rules” of the pact, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters in Tokyo.

It’s worth noting that it is the White House, not all of the Democratic Party, that supports Japan’s inclusion, as it will put pressure on US automakers. The nascent manufacturing movement in the US also opposes its old foe Japan.

Alliance for American Manufacturing president Scott Paul:

“Including Japan in the TPP without ironclad assurances that it will open its markets and stop manipulating its currency is incredibly irresponsible.


“Before the real negotiations have even started, it looks like the Obama Administration has already given Japan a blank check to cheat.


“Haven’t we learned anything from the last decade? Large trade imbalances and barriers in autos, auto parts, and other manufactured goods have gone unaddressed, and were not adequately addressed in this consultation.


Abe, faces stiff resistance around agriculture, which the US and Japan have considered leaving out of the deal. For more on the announcement from the US, click here. And yet, Japan and the US are political allies, facing a huge shared political challenge in Asia. A key element to the TPP, which is highly controversial for its intellectual property and investor-state dispute settlement resolution clauses, is that it would throw a lasso of trade rules across the Asia-Pacific region. The concern among civil society activists, is that it would be a lasso of bad rules, which are overly company-friendly but damaging to democracy.

Then in the final analysis, the TPP’s intent must be compared to what will prevail in its absence in Asia regarding trade, IP, legal remedies for disputes. Bottom line: lots of work to do.

And as complex and cumbersome as the TPP negotiations are, if the governments involved want the rules to have anything like support from the citizens of these nations – which are at vastly different levels of development – they need to provide some element of transparency in the negotiations to their citizen-stakeholders.

As Cicero said: “Freedom is participation in power.” If the US, Japan and other countries can’t do better than this, than how are they any better than the clearly authoritarian governments they stand against?