The metropolitan areas where exports account for the largest total share of local economic output are smaller and midsized communities that are almost all hubs for either manufacturing or energy production. These places read like a recap of Trump’s campaign-travel itinerary: Columbus, Elkhart, Kokomo, and Lafayette in Indiana; Racine, Fond du Lac, and Sheboygan in Wisconsin; Lake Charles and Baton Rouge in Louisiana; Waterloo, Iowa; Hickory and Rocky Mount in North Carolina,; and Midland and Battle Creek in Michigan. The list of metropolitan areas where exports provide the greatest share of total gross domestic product doesn’t reach a big city until Seattle—which ranks about 40th.
For the big, mostly blue-leaning metropolitan areas, a turn toward protectionism is a relatively unambiguous threat. “This is pretty clearly negative for those places,” Parilla said. Not only do they depend on selling to global markets, but they also “benefit from the fact that people from all over the world come to these places because they see these locations as the best destination to advance their economic prospect.“ Protectionist trade policies, reinforced by immigration limits, could stanch those flows.
For smaller communities at the foundation of the Trump coalition, the ledger is more complex. Many of those smaller places, Parilla notes, would initially welcome a more protectionist trade policy, on the belief that it will force manufacturers now relocating or building new facilities abroad to reinvest in the United States. The downside for them is less visible, but potentially more consequential: the cost to their local economies if retaliation from other nations, or simply a diminished effort to open other markets, leads to fewer sales from American firms to the world.
“When you start to [assess] what the motivation is … [for] the new administration, they were brought in to respond to a lot of these smaller communities,” Parilla said. “And [a protectionist approach] is just really dangerous [for them] because of how export-intensive some of them are. The bet, obviously, on their part is [that] it is going to be beneficial—that more production is going to concentrate in these places as a result of us closing ourselves off. But that takes a zero-sum view of trade. And if you play that out and you suggest there is going to be retaliatory measures—and overall global trade becomes less and less an important part of what drives our economy—then the most export-intensive places stand to see some changes in their economy.”
For example, a protectionist approach might save jobs at one factory, but those policies could eventually mean another employer down the road doesn’t hire new workers, or lays off existing ones, because their export markets contract.
Parilla acknowledges that it’s difficult for local officials to keep that broader perspective in mind when trade’s losers are so much more visible than its beneficiaries. But the Brookings data showing the heavy reliance on trade in the smaller cities, he said, make clear that “what might incentivize production for one industry … might be limiting opportunities for another.” And that’s why a protectionist lurch that seemingly favors Trump’s small-town bastions over the Democratic-leaning major metropolitan areas might ultimately hurt both types of communities.