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.

Single Page

More from John R. MacArthur:

Publisher's Note August 7, 2019, 3:14 pm


“Nor would I leave to Emmanuel Macron and Mark Zuckerberg, both of them politicians first and foremost, the job of regulating anything that has to do with words or language.”

Publisher's Note July 12, 2019, 10:47 am

American Greatness

Publisher's Note June 10, 2019, 12:05 pm

My French Side

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada



October 2019


Secrets and Lies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

Good Bad Bad Good·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

Poem for Harm·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Reflections on harm in language and the trouble with Whitman

Constitution in Crisis·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

America’s Constitution was once celebrated as a radical and successful blueprint for democratic governance, a model for fledgling republics across the world. But decades of political gridlock, electoral corruption, and dysfunction in our system of government have forced scholars, activists, and citizens to question the document’s ability to address the thorniest issues of modern ­political life.

Does the path out of our current era of stalemate, minority rule, and executive abuse require amending the Constitution? Do we need a new constitutional convention to rewrite the document and update it for the twenty-­first century? Should we abolish it entirely?

This spring, Harper’s Magazine invited five lawmakers and scholars to New York University’s law school to consider the constitutional crisis of the twenty-­first century. The event was moderated by Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown and the author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon.

Life after Life·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:


A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A solid-gold toilet named “America” was stolen from Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, in Oxfordshire, England.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


“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.”

Subscribe Today