The Return of Protectionism and Isolationism in the First Presidential Debate

On the 26 September, the two presidential candidates for the Democratic and Republican parties faced off in the first debate of the 2016 election. This first impression was vital for Republican Donald Trump as well as Democrat Hillary Clinton, as both are only separated by a few points in the polls for the battleground states crucial for securing the nation’s highest office. The debate covered economic policy, tax law, race relations, and various other subjects touched upon in lengthy tangents submitted by both participants. Out of all of the arguments, policy implications, subtle (and not-so-subtle) insults put forth by each candidate, one theme seemed to be consistent: the American public seeks the return of a more isolated and protected United States of America. The increasing skepticism of the current international system and the benefits that it provides put into jeopardy decades of diplomatic progress and independent international accomplishments.

Image courtesy of Ted Eytan © 2016, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Ted Eytan © 2016, some rights reserved.

Perhaps the largest indicator of this seemingly instinctive pendulum swing of American foreign policy came from not Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, but from the moderator of the debate, Lester Holt. Of his questions that required a direct answer relating to foreign policy, all had to do with security of America. Regarding ISIS, Holt seemed to redirect the natural flow of the debate to concentrate on domestic terrorism, rather than that originating for the territory that ISIS controls. Holt states, ‘You mention ISIS, and we think of ISIS certainly as [in the Middle East], but there are American citizens who have been inspired to commit acts of terror on American soil, the latest incident of course, the bombings we just saw in New York and new Jersey, the knife attack… Tell us specifically how you would prevent homegrown attacks by American citizens, Mr. Trump?’ This statement is a clear indication of a preferential treatment of a domestic security issue, a sideshow compared to the source of the issue and the cause of unacceptable loss of life in Syria and Iraq as well as the domestic terrorism experiment in the United States. Protection of American assets, natural interests, and ‘morals’ begin not at the border, as Holt seems to insinuate here, but at the independent variables located in the Middle East.

From the economic point of view, it is obvious that both candidates have taken the necessary steps to cater to the segments of population that feel disenfranchised by the post-industrial economy and the progression of globalization. Trump was quick to emphasize his own disapproval of both the TPP and NAFTA, of which he said of the latter, ‘Your husband signed NAFTA, which was one of the worst things that ever happened to the manufacturing industry.’ This is a huge departure from the typical Republican platform from the last 50 years which has advocated laissez-faire Adam Smith-ian classical economics to promote growth. Such a change of course within one election cycle signifies the degree of cynicism and skepticism many Americans have of the international system. Throughout much of the debate, Trump continued to beat the protectionist drum of anti-globalization. He decried the trade imbalance between the U.S. and China, bashed the countries of NATO for not paying an equal amount to the security bloc than the United States, and assailed Hillary on her previous support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He even went so far as to seemingly advocate monetization of security pacts by saying, ‘Just go down the list, we defend Japan, we defend Germany, we defend South Korea, we defend Saudi Arabia, we defend countries, they do not pay us. But they should be paying us, because we are providing tremendous service and we’re losing a fortune.’

The increasing skepticism of an economically-internationalized and globally-governed system was evident in not only the more radical ideas of Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton’s immediate correction of Trump’s statement that she supports the TPP shows just how toxic the idea of the massive trade deal is. Clinton has continually distanced herself from the deal, which would create a trading bloc to provide competition to the hegemonic power of Chinas manufacturing economy. The specific deal, which has been supported vehemently by President Obama, would join many Pacific nations as well as the United States in a trade agreement that would cut down barriers to trade. Backlash from both the left and the right in the United States was swift. As of March 2016, 67 per cent of Trump supporters say that free trade deals have been bad for the United States. On the left, only 55 per cent of Clinton supporters say that they have been good for the United States.

In short, the first presidential debate has showed us that whomever the eventual winner of the presidential race is, the true losing faction will be that of Neo-Liberalism. The Republican Party, which has stood for classical macroeconomics for decades, has disowned these ideals for a passive isolationism, with the narrative of ‘us versus them’ as the rallying cry. Clinton’s lack of support is worrying as well, seeing as the left seems to hold the last voting bloc in favor of large free trade deals. More worrying, however, is how Donald Trump questions the mutual securitization pacts that are currently in place that strengthens the bond between the United States and other countries around the world, like NATO. From security, to economics, to international relations, both candidates (in varying degrees) are stepping away from the liberalization of the past few decades, bowing to popular sentiment and putting diplomatic relations at risk.