Donald Trump is such a lurid character (to put it politely) that it is all too easy to become obsessed with him. That helps explain why there is so much fraught discussion of him even outside the US. But too much focus on Trump has a down side. It can obscure the broader significance of important developments.

Let us take trade as an example. There is no doubt Trump is an avid protectionist. He openly calls for hefty trade restrictions against other nations and China in particular. Such a platform should be anathema to all supporters of free trade. However, the differences between Trump and most of his critics on this question are less than generally assumed. And it is not just because Hillary Clinton, too, has adopted bellicose rhetoric on the need for tariffs.

The last time there was genuinely free trade was the late 19th century. In essence, protectionism has changed its form over the years but it has not disappeared. The emphasis has shifted away from unilateral actions by nation states and the imposition of tariffs, but that does not mean it has withered away.

Many examples could be given to illustrate this point. For instance, when governments subsidise their own companies they are giving them an edge over competitors from abroad. But let us focus on free-trade agreements instead. Despite their name they are essentially a form of protectionism. The 20 trade agreements the US has with other countries, for instance, in effect mean that it will discriminate against firms from the remaining nations.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a multi-lateral agreement between 12 Pacific Rim countries including the US, also illustrates the point. Assuming it is ratified, it will leave many trade barriers between the signatories intact. Perhaps more importantly the parties involved have deliberately left China out of the arrangement. The TPP can be seen, at least partly, as an attempt to gain an edge over Asia’s economic giant by excluding it from the regional trading bloc.

Not that Europe is an innocent party in this respect. The EU may allow free trade between its member states but it imposes numerous barriers to exports from outside the region.

When mainstream politicians say they support free trade they do not mean they advocate the unimpeded global flow of goods and services. Instead, they want their own nation’s products to be allowed to flow freely but those from other countries or blocs to be subject to protectionist barriers. This approach is invariably justified on the grounds that their competitors are acting unfairly. The political mainstream only has itself to blame when it finds the public so sceptical of its claims.

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