The “Trump” Effect: Political Elite and Support for Free Trade in America

Date01 May 2021
Published date01 May 2021
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-17djx7DqMkLvQi/input 992124APRXXX10.1177/1532673X21992124American Politics ResearchEssig et al.
American Politics Research
2021, Vol. 49(3) 328 –342
The “Trump” Effect: Political Elite and
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
Support for Free Trade in America
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X21992124
Joseph Essig1 , Ping Xu2 , James C. Garand3 ,
and Ceren Keser3
While previous literature has offered two broad categories of explanation for individual trade preferences: economic self-
interest and non-economic factors, we contend that during times of intensified elite discourse on trade, individuals may
follow elite opinions to form their opinions on trade. Utilizing data from the 2016 American National Election Survey, we
examine the effect of Trump’s protectionist views and rhetoric on public trade opinion. We argue that there was a “Trump
effect” on trade attitudes among the mass public in 2016 and this effect went beyond the party line, meaning that Trump
supporters, regardless of their partisanship, were more likely to be influenced by his protectionist views and to adopt anti-
free trade positions. Moreover, we suggest a conditional effect of political knowledge on the “Trump effect” of trade opinion.
Our empirical tests offer strong support for both hypotheses, suggesting a significant “Trump effect” on public trade opinion
in 2016.
trade opinion, trump effect, political knowledge, protectionism, elite discourse and rhetoric
The costs and benefits of free trade have been long debated
elites on public trade opinion in the context of the 2016 presi-
among social scientists. Despite the consensus among econ-
dential election. In 2016, Trump’s negative rhetoric toward
omists that free trade is mutually beneficial to involved
trade during the presidential race was a national sensation. A
countries through greater production and more efficient
significant part of Trump’s campaign was based on criticism
resource allocation, open trade also has inevitable negative
of current US trade policy and its large trade deficit. We
political consequences. The rapid growth of open trade in
chose the 2016 election year because this election features
the second half of the 20th century, in part, led to losses of
the first major presidential candidate in recent US history
manufacturing jobs and deep discontent among citizens in
who fiercely attacked free trade; it provides an excellent
western developed countries (Margalit, 2012; Rodrik, example of heightened volume of one-sided elite discourse
1997). Puzzled by the discrepancy between the widely
on the issue of trade. We argue that presidential candidate
known benefits of free trade and waves of protectionist sen-
Donald Trump had a strong influence on trade attitudes
timent among the public, scholars have endeavored to
among the mass public, and this effect could go beyond par-
explore the determinants of public opinion on trade, propos-
tisanship. Building on the rich literature of political elites’
ing explanations such as economic self-interests, education,
influence on public preferences, we hypothesize that Trump
nationalism and ethnocentrism, concerns about the social
supporters, regardless of their partisanship, were more likely
and cultural consequences, partisanship, issue framing,
influenced by his protectionist views because of their pre-
endorsement, and wording of survey questions (Balistreri,
existing anti-openness predispositions. In addition, the
1997; Dür & Schlipphak, 2020; Heckscher, 1919; Herrmann
“Trump effect” should be larger among more knowledgeable
et al., 2001; Hiscox, 2006; Kaltenthaler et al., 2004;
Trump supporters because they are more likely to acquire
Mansfield & Mutz, 2009; Margalit, 2012; Mayda & Rodrik,
2005; Medrano and Braun, 2012; Mutz & Kim, 2017;
O’Rourke et al., 2001; Scheve & Slaughter, 2001; Stolper &
University of Rochester, NY, USA
2University of Rhode Island College of Arts and Sciences, Kingston, USA
Samuelson, 1941; Winslett, 2016).
3Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, USA
Building upon previous literature, we contend that during
Corresponding Author:
times of intensified elite rhetoric on trade and trade policies,
Ping Xu, University of Rhode Island College of Arts and Sciences, 223
individuals may follow elite discourse to form their trade
Washburn, 80 Upper College Road, Kingston, RI 02881, USA.
opinions. In this paper, we examine the effect of political

Essig et al.
political messages on trade and more able to analyze and
counterparts will oppose it (Stolper & Samuelson, 1941).
accept Trump’s messages consistent with their anti-openness
Numerous studies have found empirical support for the
Heckscher-Olin theory on trade opinion in the US, Canada,
Utilizing data from the 2016 American National Election
Latin America and in a cross-national context (Baker, 2003;
Studies (ANES), we find strong support for our hypotheses.
Balistreri, 1997; Mayda & Rodrik, 2005; O’Rourke et al.,
Indeed, supporters of Donald Trump are significantly more
2001; Scheve & Slaughter, 2001).
likely to oppose free trade and support limiting imports from
The later Ricardo-Viner model argues that workers cannot
other countries even after controlling for a full range of
easily move across sectors in the short run, and therefore
explanations suggested by previous literature and accounting
one’s trade opinion is based on how open trade influences the
for the possibility of reciprocal causality. Furthermore, we
sector that one works in. As a result, individuals working in
find evidence of the conditional effect of political knowledge
import-intensive sectors will oppose free trade, but individu-
on this “Trump effect:” politically knowledgeable Trump
als working in export-intensive sectors will support free
supporters are more likely to be influenced by Trump’s pro-
trade (Brock & Magee 1978; Irwin 1998). The Ricardo-Viner
tectionist rhetoric. Interestingly, once we consider “Trump
model, also called the specific factors theory, has gained
support” as an explanation, we see the effect of partisanship
relatively less empirical support. Researchers find that
disappears; in a robustness check with split samples we find
whether or not an individual works in import- or export-
that the “Trump effect” is more salient among Democrats
intensive sector is at best a weak predictor of one’s trade
and Independents.
preferences (Hays et al., 2005; Mansfield & Mutz, 2009;
Taken together, these findings suggest that theories on
Scheve & Slaughter, 2001).
public opinion formation based solely on economic inter-
More recently, a growing body of literature argues that
ests or party-driven changes cannot capture the whole
trade opinion can be also influenced by non-economic fac-
story of trade opinion, and that the persuasive power of
tors such as individuals’ feelings about out-groups based on
political elites does not necessarily only operate through a
ethnocentrism and nationalism, partisanship, as well as con-
partisan channel. Our findings contribute to the trade opin-
cerns over the social and cultural consequences of trade
ion literature by demonstrating that trade attitudes can be
(Mansfield & Mutz, 2009; Margalit, 2012; Mayda & Rodrik,
influenced by political elites, a viewpoint that prior
2005; Mutz, 2017; O’Rourke et al., 2001). For instance, by
research on trade opinion has not focused much attention
employing data from the National Annenberg Election
on. In addition, the findings reveal the possibility that elite
Survey and a survey conducted by Knowledge Networks,
persuasion could sometimes play an even more important
Mansfield and Mutz (2009) find that economic self-interest,
role in public opinion formation than economic reasoning
whether it be skill-based or sector-based, has little influence
or even partisanship.
on Americans’ trade attitudes. Instead, one’s educational
In the remainder of the paper, we first offer a detailed
attainment is a strong predictor of trade opinion, and educa-
theoretical account on the determinants of trade opinion pro-
tion is a reflection of one’s anxiety from out-group threats
posed by previous literature. We then discuss how and why
based on tendencies toward nationalism, isolationism and
elite rhetoric may influence citizens’ attitudes and extend this
ethnocentrism. Those with higher levels of tolerance for out-
to the possible influence of Donald Trump’s protectionist
groups and with more cosmopolitan worldviews will likely
rhetoric on Americans’ trade opinion, and further, discuss
support free trade, but those holding ethnocentric, nationalist
how this relationship may be conditional upon political
and isolationist views will likely oppose free trade (Mansfield
knowledge. In the next section, we introduce our data and
& Mutz, 2009). Likewise, Kaltenthaler et al. (2004) also find
empirical methods used to test our hypotheses. In the last two
education as the most important predictor of individual atti-
sections, we discuss the statistical results, our findings and
tudes toward trade liberalization.
their implications for future research.
Building upon this stream of research, Margalit (2012)
contends that opposition to free trade can be also...

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