In one of the less apocalyptic moments during Wednesday night’s presidential debate, Donald Trump limned the state of the American economy and, for the third time in the third straight debate, angled to link Hillary Clinton to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA):
I pass factories that were thriving 20, 25 years ago. Because of the bill that her husband signed—and she blessed 100 percent, it is just horrible what’s happening to these people in these communities. Now, she can say her husband did well, but boy, did they suffer as NAFTA kicked in because it didn’t really kick in very much. But it kicked in after they left— boy did they suffer. That was one of the worst things that ever happened in our country.
Earlier in the debate, Trump characterized NAFTA, the 1994 agreement between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, as “one of the worst deals ever made of any kind signed by anybody.” But the legacy of NAFTA is much more complicated. As my colleague Uri Friedman noted in The Atlantic’s liveblog, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service offered this verdict of the deal in 2015: “NAFTA did not cause the huge job losses feared by the critics or the large economic gains predicted by supporters. The net overall effect of NAFTA on the U.S. economy appears to have been relatively modest.”
While NAFTA doesn’t appear to have been the catastrophe that Trump tries to depict it as, the agreement certainly had its flaws, such as not producing more jobs and spurring offshore production. But NAFTA and its associated problems can’t entirely be tied to Clinton—it was her husband’s presidential predecessor, George H.W. Bush, who initiated it. “More Republicans than Democrats voted for the deal, as the trade pact was vehemently opposed by labor unions,” Glenn Kessler wrote in The Washington Post back in May. “One key ally for Clinton was then-House Minority Whip (and later House speaker) Newt Gingrich.” As Kessler notes, for Clinton to push the deal through Congress, he had to do so against the objections of two Democrats, House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt and House Majority Whip David Bonior, both of whom hailed from states whose economies relied heavily on manufacturing.
So of what use is this talking point? Well, for a candidate staking much of his presidential run on voters’ anger over America “getting killed on trade” and courting factory-heavy swing states, the populistic invocation of NAFTA is extremely effective. To many working-class Americans, international trade is shorthand for economic distress. Trump’s statements have seized on this sentiment: “All you have to do is look at Michigan and look at Ohio and look at all of these places where so many of their jobs and their companies are just leaving—they’re gone,” Trump said in the first debate. (Michigan, now seemingly beyond Trump’s reach, was replaced in his remarks on Wednesday night by Pennsylvania and Florida and, for panache, upstate New York.)
While NAFTA may not have wreaked the economic havoc that Trump claims, an agreement involving America’s southern neighbor blends effectively with his other passion projects—deporting undocumented immigrants back to Mexico and building the wall. And though Trump’s fixation with China has inspired internet memes, the country that has done more to rout American manufacturing jobs is harder to pin on his opponent: The United States doesn’t have a trade deal with China and its entrance into the World Trade Organization took place under a Republican president, George W. Bush, after there was no longer a Clinton in the oval office.