Free Trade

Trump Is Shifting American's Views on Trade, But Not the Way He Wants

A new poll shows Americans (including Republicans) are rejecting Trump's nationalist view of global trade.


Donald Trump's time in office appears to have shifted Americans' views on how their country interacts with the world, but not in a way the president would like. Two years after electing a man who promised to build walls and tear up trade deals, a greater share of Americans believe that the country should be welcoming to foreigners and that trade is beneficial.

This bit of good news is delivered via the most recent HuffPost/YouGov poll, which surveyed 1,000 Americans this month by asking a variety of questions about international affairs. Compared to a similar poll run by the same pollsters in June 2016—just after the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and just as Trump was wrapping up the GOP nomination—the new poll shows that "Americans' appetite for anti-globalist rhetoric appears to be on the wane," in the words of Ariel Edwards-Levy, HuffPost's polling editor.

The shift on trade is particularly remarkable. Trump stormed into office promising to slap tariffs on imports and to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement. Two years later, Trump's tariffs have become a drag on the economy, and Congress will soon consider a NAFTA rewrite that raises barriers to continental trade—though it's not as bad as some free traders initially feared, and NAFTA still remains in place (for now).

As the president tried to slow foreign trade, Americans decided they actually like it more than they thought:


If you need another reason to be heartened by these numbers, consider that the biggest shift in support for free trade comes from self-identified Republicans—a direct rebuke to the president's trade agenda.

I can see a couple possible explanations for this shift in views. The most obvious is that Trump continues to be a deeply unpopular president in most of the country, and even within some typically conservative demographics. Any policy being pushed by an unpopular president is likely to become more unpopular with the general public simply for having his name attached to it—ironic, perhaps, considering how much of Trump's fame is linked to him literally attaching his name to things. And if those policies pushed by an unpopular president also happen to increase costs and trigger job losses, well, that's only going to accelerate voters' shift to the opposite side.

Beyond that, most Americans simply didn't think much about trade issues before the past few months. Scott Lincicome, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute and a trade attorney, highlighted this reality in a paper published in November. Because most Americans don't have strong opinions about trade policy—as opposed to, say, gun rights or abortion—trade views tend to be both strongly partisan and not particularly strongly held, Linicicome argued. In other words, most voters go along with whatever their favored political party thinks about trade issues, but those opinions can be subject to change because they're not deeply held.

Pointing to data from recent Pew surveys, Lincicome concluded that Americans were not turning against free trade en masse.

The new HuffPost/YouGov poll suggests the same thing, but perhaps provides even better news for free traders: Now that they have been subjected to months of presidential tweets about tariffs, exaggerations (and outright lies) about the benefits of the White House's trade war, and news stories detailing the reality of the situation, Americans are thinking more about trade than they have in a long time. And they've decided that for the most part, they like it.