Whether or not Trump can or should attempt to reverse the decline in manufacturing jobs is not the big story here. He can’t. The real story is that he continues to tap into the anger of his voters about being left behind. That will give him much more power than our criticisms will take away.I think this is hysteria.
Politicians, aided by economists, have long ignored the negative impacts of trade-induced structural change. Indeed, they have even cheered it on. After all, the process “releases resources” for use in other, more productive parts of the economy. Those workers are just “low-skilled” workers. The US needs more “high-skilled” workers anyway.
Fact: Workers hate being referred to as “low-skilled.”
How we respond to Trump is important. If we simply fall back on our standard numbers, we lose. If we confidently predict that TPP is a big win because it will add 0.5% to GDP by 2030, we lose. If we just use this as an opportunity to reiterate the importance of a college degree, we lose. We have been doing this for decades, and it helped deliver Trump to office.
Elections do matter; I wish Trump weren't about to be President. But just because things are important doesn't mean they have any deep meaning in historical terms, or that we have much control over them. In fact lots of really important events, from the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, have been pretty much random.
Trump won the election because of a bunch of transient factors that have no relationship to the long-term direction of the country: fear of terrorism, Hillary's unpopularity, a reaction against eight years of Obama, slow job growth in a handful of key states, Facebook's current news algorithm, Trump's personal rapport with a certain sort of working class voter, etc. Exit polls showed that a substantial majority of Americans favors free trade, so it is not clear to me what would be accomplished by aligning the Democratic party with anti-trade forces just because we lost one election.
If support for protectionism and other ways of propping up dying industrial regions is so important, then why have voters in those states been electing Tea Party Republicans to Congress? Somebody like Michigan representative Justin Amash is a free-trader absolutely opposed to any sort of program for helping workers who lose their jobs – really for any program that helps anybody. To think that something like trade policy effects votes is to make people out as far more rational than they really are.
Democrats absolutely need to tone down the contempt for working class folks, and it would be nice to have a candidate who resonates better with those voters. But there are other ways of showing support for the working class than protectionism. After all, Obama and Bill Clinton did very well with those same voters without saying a word about Chinese competition.