by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University

Are we in the midst of the Trump-Biden era?

This question seems absurd at first glance.  The antipathy that the current and former President have for one another, and that their supporters have for one another, are legendary.  During the first Presidential debate in 2020, both men kept talking at once, primarily because of Trump’s constant interruptions of Biden.  At one point, Biden shot back, “Would You Shut Up, Man?”  This was a truly unprecedented moment in modern-day American politics.

These two also differ markedly on the culture war, and their stances have a dramatic impact on the lives of Americans.  Nowhere is this clearer than the 2022 Dobbs v. Women’s Health Services ruling, which would not have been possible had it not been for Trump’s three appointments to the Supreme Court.  As a result of that ruling repealing Roe v. Wade, many states have criminalized abortion in nearly all circumstances, including Texas, whose nearly 30 million people comprise the second-largest state population in the U.S.  Most states surrounding Texas have also outlawed abortion, so the closest abortion clinics to most Texas residents are now those in Wichita, Kansas, which do not have anything close to the capacity required to meet this demand.  Meanwhile, abortion opponents are outraged that women in these states are seeking to travel to states where the procedure is legal rather than carrying their pregnancies to term as was intended by the new laws, and are seeking ways to criminalize out-of-state referrals and abortion-inducing medications, among other things.

There is no doubt that this difference between the parties is real and meaningful.  There are also real, substantive differences over voting rights, guns, funding for religious schools, and a host of culture war hot buttons such as the allegations that elementary school teachers are teaching Critical Race Theory (“CRT”) in their classrooms.  I am writing this the day after President Biden’s 2023 State of the Union Address, which featured the President confronting Republican hecklers numerous times and at one point, “pinning” the Republicans on the issues of Social Security and Medicare.  The State of the Union is coming more and more to resemble Prime Minister’s Question Time in the UK.

Case closed, then?  Are Trump and Biden the opposite of one another on every issue?  Not so fast.  While the culture war may get Congresspersons shouting and bring others’ blood to a boil, beneath these fights are some fundamental changes that were begun by Trump and continued by Biden.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the interlaced issues of U.S. trade policy and our relationship with China.  In these areas–which, arguably, have a far more profound impact on the future than do some culture war fights–Trump Republicans and Biden Democrats are more alike than different.  These two have led the United States into a remarkably different era than the one characterized by their predecessors.  Put simply, since 2016 the United States has shifted from an era of lowering trade barriers and encouraging international supply chains to one of “America First.”

In 2000, President Clinton eagerly welcomed China into the World Trade Organization.  The United States was already importing many goods from China by then.  President Nixon had famously visited China in 1973, and shortly thereafter the U.S. dropped its demand that China’s seat on the United Nations Security Council be held by Taiwan rather than the People’s Republic of China, the latter also known as “mainland” or “communist” China.  In 1979, President Carter normalized relations with China.  Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, China aggressively industrialized, with Americans and others around the world buying more and more goods manufactured there.  China followed in a long tradition established by occupied Japan after World War II, later continued by Taiwan and Hong Kong (which was British-occupied at the time)– carving out an economic niche as a center for the production of inexpensive consumer goods, before moving on to items with a higher value added such as (in the case of the Japan) high-quality consumer electronics and of course, automobiles.  China is trending the same way now.

During this time, the U.S.–which is hardly blameless itself when it comes to human rights–continued to express concern about one party government and human rights abuses in China.  Americans were also wary of China’s freewheeling attitude toward intellectual property rights, which we often argued amounted to theft of U.S.-made ideas.  Still, a long line of U.S. Presidents from Nixon onward ultimately decided that the best thing for the people of both countries would be for the U.S. to engage with the government of the world’s most-populated country, rather than trying to isolate them.  Clinton was particularly hopeful that a greater openness to trade in China would lead to a more-open system of government there, including respect for human rights and a multiparty political system.  The results of this have been decidedly mixed.  China has had some democratic experiments, for example using nonpartisan, competitive elections for certain local governing bodies in rural communities.  Yet the Communist Party’s grip on the national government remains strong, and human rights abuses persist, for example against the people of Tibet and also the Uyghur Muslims.  Again, in raising these issues I do not mean to suggest that the United States has a spotless record on human rights.

President Clinton’s embrace of free trade was a remarkable flip from the policies of earlier Democratic leaders such as House Speaker Tip O’Neill and former Vice President Walter Mondale.  O’Neill, Mondale, and other prominent Democrats of the 1980s were strongly allied with labor unions.  They embraced protectionism–the idea that international trade (often referred to as “unfair foreign competition”) cost American jobs and weakened our industries.  They believed that import quotas, tariffs, and other such measures were needed to–as they put it–”level the playing field.”  President Reagan ostensibly favored free trade but also negotiated import quotas to protect the American auto industry–the highest-profile such industry affected by this competition.  Thus, it is hardly surprising that the legions of Reagan Democrats responsible for his landslide win over Mondale in 1984 included many unionized auto workers in states like Michigan.  Still, Reagan’s rhetoric and some of his other policies did emphasize free trade–a smart politician, Reagan essentially carved out a special niche from these policies for the high-profile, vote-rich U.S. auto industry.

In the following decade, President Clinton’s embrace of trade agreements such as NAFTA and the WTO represented an abrupt about-face for the Democratic Party, and not all Democrats–particularly those from industrialized “rust belt” regions–supported this change.  Clinton famously sent Vice President Gore to debate former third-party Presidential candidate Ross Perot over the NAFTA free trade agreement.  In backing NAFTA, Clinton threw his support behind an agreement negotiated by his predecessor, George H.W. Bush, whom Clinton had just defeated.  NAFTA was not directly connected to China, but it ushered in a new stance toward trade among Democratic leaders. Bipartisan, presidential support for trade agreements would then continue into the George W. Bush and Obama Administrations.

Two decades later, President Trump ushered in a change that was just as dramatic.  Trump openly spoke of tariffs and pursued “America First” policies, which are anathema to the views of free-market economists as well as those of most Republicans and many Democrats before 2016.  Or rather, Trump’s views were anathema to most Republican elites before then– many rank-and-file Republicans had long been skeptical of free trade.  As contributors to the ebook The Science of Trump (ed. John Sides and Henry Farrell) note, part of Trump’s appeal was to bypass the longstanding conventional wisdom among Republican Party elites and go straight to the rank and file–and bring in some disaffected Democrats and independent voters, too.  For these voters, the theme of “America First” played well.

Now Joe Biden is President, and the theme continues to play well.  His 2023 State of the State Address was brimming with talk of “Made in the USA.”  He championed federal policies subsidizing the construction of semiconductor factories, promised that construction under federal contracts would have a “made in America” requirement, and openly taunted Chinese President and Communist Party Leader Xi Jinping, suggesting that no other world leader would want to switch places with Xi.  Biden also accused Chinese companies of intellectual property theft–a longstanding grudge the U.S. has held.  Trump had pursued these charges as well, particularly regarding the technology conglomerate Huawei, which is owned in part by the Chinese government.  Bipartisan legislation is also pending in Congress to ban the popular social media platform TikTok, in which Chinese companies interlaced with their government own a large stake.  TikTok is believed to have major, possibly deliberate security flaws that compromise the privacy of user data.  All of this occurred just days after Biden ordered the U.S. military to shoot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon after it passed over the United States.  Republican critics say he should have shot it down sooner.

The differences between Trump and Biden over issues like abortion rights, voting rights, and judicial appointments are real and should not be trivialized.  Yet behind the culture war’s heat lies a remarkable, bipartisan change in direction in U.S. policy toward China and trade.  The free trade era that began with Nixon in 1973 and reached its apex with Clinton’s support for their WTO membership in 2000, has given way to new “America First” policies which also cross party lines.  Only history can judge what this combative new stance toward China means, but one thing is clear:  Trump and Biden may not like each other, but when it comes to trade with China, their stances are more alike than different.


About the Author

Michael A. Smith is Professor of Political Science and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University.  He has authored or co-authored three books, the most recent of which is co-authored with two Emporia State colleagues, Drs. Bob Grover and Rob Catlett.  It is entitled Low Taxes and Small Government: The Brownback Experiment in Kansas and was released by Lexington in 2019.  He has other academic publications as well, and also writes newspaper columns carried throughout Kansas as part of the Insight Kansas group and blogs for the MPSA. Michael appears occasionally on television and radio in Kansas and western Missouri to discuss state and national politics.  He was an expert witness for the plantiff in the Bednasek v Kobach case, decided together with Fish v Kobach by the federal district court for Kansas in 2018.  Michael teaches courses in American politics, state and local government, and political philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in 2000. Follow Michael on Twitter