Yet, now Trump has all but backed down. Of his policy reversals, stepping away from withdrawing from NAFTA still seems surprising. After all, trade is about the only issue that Trump has shown consistency on, issuing protectionist pronouncements since the late 1980s.
To understand Trump’s malleability on trade, it is helpful to compare him to two predecessors: Ross Perot and Patrick Buchanan. Both men denounced trade from a conservative nationalist perspective. Unlike Trump however, their critiques included multinational corporations as principal villains. Meanwhile, Trump largely demurred from blaming business – a rhetorical move that shows how his nationalist rhetoric can be simultaneously genuine and more pliable than it seemed.
Perot and Buchanan arose at a time when conservatives questioned the role of the United States in the world, including economically. Most of the GOP establishment lauded free trade as an engine that generated prosperity at home and solidified capitalism overseas. Yet, trade was not particularly popular in the post-Cold War United States. Between 1979 and 1989, the U.S. manufacturing sector lost 1, 428,000 jobs, and while trade was not the only or primary culprit, it was an important one.
In the early 1990s, NAFTA became the focal point for the trade debate. The loudest voice decrying NAFTA was a famous, folksy, and conspiracy-minded businessman who ran for president: Ross Perot. In his 1992 third-party presidential candidate, Perot famously declared that NAFTA would cause a “giant sucking sound” of jobs fleeing the U.S. for Mexico. As the only anti-NAFTA presidential candidate, Perot appealed to areas harmed by trade – areas that gave him some of his highest vote totals, helping him reach 19% of the popular vote. Perot sounded nationalistic notes, warning of Mexican lobbyists corrupting U.S. democracy and of NAFTA leading to increased “illegal immigration.”