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The truth about trade

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President Trump recently announced that the United States and Mexico have reached a preliminary agreement on a new trade deal to replace NAFTA.

Getty Images/Win McNamee Enlarge

In 2008, as a candidate for president, Hillary Clinton said that she would renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, if elected.

Her husband created NAFTA.

Let’s have a show of hands: How many people think Mrs. Clinton actually would have done that?

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And in 2009, Barack Obama went to the GM Lordstown Assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio, where the Chevy Cruze is made. He lauded the long-term comeback of the American auto industry, the great improvement in American cars (it’s a long way from the Chevy Vega once made in Lordstown to the Cruze) and his own role in “saving” the auto industry after the 2008 market crash.

In Lordstown that day, the president called the Cruze a great car and said he would buy one himself when he left office.

The cheers were deafening.

But today the workers in Lordstown are facing the abyss. Hundreds have been laid off, and the plant is down to one shift. Although they still make a great car in Lordstown, consumers increasingly want big and midsize SUVs and car executives want cheap labor. GM is building another, “global” Cruze in Mexico.

American workers in the Rust Belt, in the so-called “legacy” cities, in the steel belt and in Appalachia, where once there was not only coal but also manufacturing, have been worried and disillusioned for 30 years now as they have watched their jobs go abroad. They waited patiently while NAFTA devastated their lives and their communities. All through the years they were told, by Democrats, not by Republicans who believed in “free trade” and global markets: Help is on the way.

Help never came.

Though there were critics, Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, and U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur among them (Mr. Perot liked to say he’d actually read the NAFTA agreement), the major Democratic lights, led by Bill Clinton and Al Gore, assured middle America that the wealth created by NAFTA would lift all boats. Eventually the bounty would reach Pittsburgh and Wheeling and Little Washington and Lima, Ohio, and Toledo and Buffalo and Youngstown and Flint. And all the small towns that depended on American manufacturing.

The promises kept coming and the little towns, one by one, went dark.

Then came Donald Trump with his insistence upon fair trade and an “America first” trade policy. The critics said it was demagoguery and nostalgia. It was too late to correct the damage done by NAFTA, and any attempt to do so would actually be harmful to what is left of American manufacturing. Any attempt to renegotiate NAFTA would be pernicious.

One might have thought that Democrats on the left who had long called for fair trade and for renegotiating NAFTA would have said: On this issue the president is right. This is what we have wanted for a very long time.

One might have thought there would be voices in the labor movement who would say so.

But those voices, other than Miss Kaptur, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, former congressman Dennis Kucinich, and Leo Gerard of the United Steelworkers, were were muted and few.

Now Mr. Trump is halfway to his goal of a new trade deal with Canada and Mexico.

It could never be done with Mexico, we were told. Not with this president.

It was done.

It seems likely that Canada will come along soon.

And guess what? Not only did the sky not fall, but the stock market, humming along anyway, crescendoed. Though expert after expert told us otherwise, it turns out that fair trade is good economics.

It is certainly a bow of respect, and maybe, in time, more, to the American worker.

And the Democrats bite their tongues because an America that makes things once was, and should have remained, their issue.

And the Republicans whistle and look at the ceiling and wait for this protectionist fever to break.

But no matter what one thinks of Mr. Trump’s tweets, his personal style, his other foreign and domestic policies or his legal problems, he has stood up for the American worker and is beginning to get results. That is worthy of note and support, in both parties. Maybe someone will give him a Cruze.

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