Publisher's Note — August 4, 2016, 1:29 pm

Trump’s Trade Talk

Above all, NAFTA is an investment agreement, financial and political in nature, and it has always been considered as such by both Republicans and Democrats.

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on August 1, 2016. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

On the way to securing his party’s presidential nomination, Donald Trump indulged in a level of verbal violence so excessive that many seasoned Republicans, presumably repelled by their nominee, boycotted their own convention. The ultra-vulgar real-estate billionaire’s insults and racism are said to have inspired so much loathing that many donors and “respectable” personages identified with the Republican Party will either sit out this presidential campaign or, indeed, actively support Hillary Clinton.

Unfortunately, this analysis underestimates the cynicism of a great many American politicians, who would back practically anyone to achieve their ends. Trump has a real problem with his party, but it’s not personal, it’s trade-related. And what the Republican leadership chiefly loathes about Trump is his opposition to free-trade agreements, such as NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), the granting of PNTR (Permanent Normal Trade Relations) status to China, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Nevertheless, without his war against free trade, Trump has no chance of winning against Clinton. The Democratic candidate is so closely linked with her husband’s efforts to pass NAFTA—without counting her own support for trade accords when she was secretary of state—that an entire generation of workers blames both Clintons for having sold their jobs to the cheap labor forces of Mexico and China. Each of those ex-factory workers is a potential vote for Trump, and his blue-collar supporters, for the most part, ignore his contradictions (“I am all for free trade, but it’s got to be fair”).

Unfortunately for the American working class, Trump’s talk about free trade mistakes the truth. There are, obviously, many free-trade elements in NAFTA, but it is above all an investment agreement, financial and political in nature, and it has always been considered as such by both Republicans and Democrats.

U.S. tariffs on products imported from Mexico were already very low in 1991—3.5% on American component parts exported to be assembled in Mexican maquiladoras and then re-exported to the United States—when the government of Mexican President Carlos Salinas initiated talks with George H.W. Bush’s administration. Before NAFTA came into force on January 1, 1994, there was nothing to stop an American company from crossing over to Mexico to take advantage of the cheap labor and weak environmental regulation there. At the same time, the advantages of investing in Mexico were offset by fears of political instability, never more in evidence than when President Lázaro Cárdenas nationalized the petroleum industry in 1938. Although Salinas conducted himself like a free-marketeer, there were still good reasons for American businessmen to remain distrustful. What if the left returned to power? And what about corruption?

The key provisions of NAFTA are in Chapter 11, which was formulated in order to provide protection against threats of expropriation and to guarantee that American corporations would receive payments in “G7 currencies” (and not, if possible, in pesos). With this legal guarantee, it was hoped that the steadier influx of dollars would “civilize” the Mexicans and stabilize their political system as well as their currency.

Trump apparently doesn’t understand that the granting of Permanent Normal Trade Relations status, like the “normalization” accord with China pushed by Bill Clinton and adopted by Congress in 2000, is not a free-trade agreement. Like NAFTA, PNTR was sold as a means of increasing American exports, whereas it was, in fact, a preliminary step to China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization. Chinese membership in the WTO is in itself a kind of insurance policy for foreign investors in the People’s Republic. After all, China is officially communist, which from the American point of view is even worse than being Mexican. While the WTO still doesn’t have strict regulations such as those contained in NAFTA, membership in the WTO at least implies that a country is committed to following the rules of the world trade order. It’s not surprising that on the day after the passage of PNTR by the House of Representatives, the Wall Street Journal reported that “the China investment rush is on.” Joseph Quinlan of Morgan Stanley declared, “This deal is about investment, not exports. U.S. foreign investment is about to overtake U.S. exports as the primary means by which U.S. companies deliver goods to China.”

For Trump’s contemptuous opponents in the Republican Party, the “free-trade” agreements represent enormous business opportunities. As a result, many Republican contributions are going to flow to Hillary Clinton, who—in spite of her opportunistic about-face on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which she now opposes—is seen as the best bet for the party of high finance.

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More from John R. MacArthur:

Publisher's Note December 10, 2018, 3:23 pm

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“The Democratic Party is best understood as an assemblage of baronies, the three most important of which—California, New York, and Illinois—dole out the most patronage and political favors in return for filling the party’s coffers and guaranteeing the reelection of its most cherished adherents.”

Publisher's Note November 3, 2018, 12:02 am

All Bets Are Off

“I recommend neither the assertions of journalists and pollsters nor big headlines about terror attacks, murders, or caravans of desperate people as a basis for predicting the outcome of the midterm elections.”

Publisher's Note October 9, 2018, 11:53 am

Trading on Resentment

“The ‘free trade’ policies championed by US leaders from Reagan to Obama, most definitely including the Clintons, have produced many victims.”

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The Gatekeepers·

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Toward the end of the Obama presidency, the work of James Baldwin began to enjoy a renaissance that was both much overdue and comfortless. Baldwin stands as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century, and any celebration of his work is more than welcome. But it was less a reveling than a panic. The eight years of the first black president were giving way to some of the most blatant and vitriolic displays of racism in decades, while the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others too numerous to list sparked a movement in defense of black lives. In Baldwin, people found a voice from the past so relevant that he seemed prophetic.

More than any other writer, Baldwin has become the model for black public-intellectual work. The role of the public intellectual is to proffer new ideas, encourage deep thinking, challenge norms, and model forms of debate that enrich our discourse. For black intellectuals, that work has revolved around the persistence of white supremacy. Black abolitionists, ministers, and poets theorized freedom and exposed the hypocrisy of American democracy throughout the period of slavery. After emancipation, black colleges began training generations of scholars, writers, and artists who broadened black intellectual life. They helped build movements toward racial justice during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whether through pathbreaking journalism, research, or activism.

Bloom, acrylic, ink, wood, and fabric on canvas, by David Shrobe © The artist. Courtesy Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco
The Vanishing·

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On a Friday afternoon in the fall of 2017, a few months after the liberation of Mosul from the Islamic State, a group of neighbors gathered at Mar Mattai, a monastery founded in the fourth century. They unloaded baskets of food, and arranged themselves around a long table in a courtyard. A woman named Niser spread out a tablecloth and put down a plate of dolmas. “It’s a way of celebrating that we still exist,” she told me. More people were arriving—children, grandparents, cousins, aunts, and distant relations—members of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world who had not seen one another for three years.

Overlooking the village of Mergey from the old section of the Mar Mattai Monastery, Mount Maqlub, Iraq. All photographs from Iraq (October 2017) and Jerusalem (March 2018) by Nicole Tung (Detail)
Investigating Hate·

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Around three in the morning on a cold December Sunday, brothers José and Romel Sucuzhañay began to walk home from a bar in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was a cloudy night, only a few degrees above freezing, and the houses and stores lining their route wore impassive, nighttime guises—shades drawn, metal grates locked down. Romel had only recently arrived from Ecuador. José, a thirty-­one-year-old father of two, ran a successful real estate agency in the neighborhood. The two had spent the evening eating and drinking at a quinceañera at St. Brigid Church, and afterward, they stopped at a local bar called Christopher’s Palace. They were feeling the alcohol as they headed back to José’s apartment. When they realized that José had left his coat behind in the bar, Romel took off his jacket and draped it around his younger brother’s shoulders. They continued to walk up Bushwick Avenue, swaying a bit, arms around each other for warmth and ballast.

As they approached the corner of Kossuth Place and Bushwick Avenue, a red SUV stopped at the traffic light. “Check out those faggots!” the driver yelled out the window. José may have said something in reply. Very rapidly, a man jumped out of the passenger side door and smashed José on the head with a bottle, dropping him to the ground. He then turned to attack Romel. As Romel fled from the man down Kossuth, the driver exited the car, grabbed an aluminum baseball bat out of the vehicle, and began to beat José until someone emerged from the back seat and called him off. The driver was walking away when he saw some movement from José, a twitch of his hand or his leg sliding across the pavement—trying to rise, perhaps—and he strode back, straddled him, and raised the bat high in the air. He brought it down on José’s head, again and again, as if he were chopping wood.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae (Detail)
Preservation Acts·

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After eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, Bergis Jules found himself worrying not only over the horrors of the present, but also over how little of the present was likely to be preserved for the future. The best reporting on the aftermath in Ferguson was being produced by activists on Twitter, a notoriously ephemeral medium. Jules, then an archivist at the University of California, Riverside, had the impulse to start saving tweets, but wasn’t sure how. “That whole weekend, watching things unfold, I thought, ‘This is a really amazing historical moment; we should think about capturing it,’ but I was just talking to myself,” he says. The following week, attending a Society of American Archivists conference in Washington, D.C., he voiced his fears en route to drinks at the hotel bar. He caught the ear of Ed Summers, a developer who just so happened to be the author of a Twitter archiving tool—and who promptly programmed it to va­cuum up #Ferguson tweets. Within two weeks, he had amassed more than 13 million.

Three weeks after the shooting, Summers blogged about the archive, which he and Jules were considering making public. Shortly thereafter, they received an inquiry from a data-mining company. When they pulled up the firm’s website, they read that its clients included the Department of Defense and, ominously, “the intelligence community.” What did the company want with the data? And what were the ethical implications of handing it over—perhaps indirectly to law enforcement—when the protesters’ tweets would otherwise evade collection? Using Twitter’s Application Programming Interface (API), the code that developers use to call up Twitter data, anyone can sift through tweets that were posted in the past week, but older posts disappear from the API’s search function, even if they still exist out on the web. The data-mining company was too late to nab a swath of the #Ferguson tweets. (Twitter has since unveiled a “premium” API that allows access to older data, for a substantial fee.) Newly mindful of the risks, Jules and Summers waited almost a year to publish their cache.

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Estimated number of times in the Fall of 1990 that George Bush told a joke about his dog asking for a wine list with her Alpo:


French researchers reported that 52 percent of young women exposed to Francis Cabrel’s ballad “Je l’aime à mourir” gave their phone numbers to an average-looking young man who hit on them, whereas only 28 percent of those exposed to Vincent Delerm’s “L’heure du thé” did so.

Migrant children were teargassed; carbon dioxide levels have reached three to five million year high; missionary killed by remote tribe

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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