Donald Trump found himself an unlikely cheerleader on his third day in the Oval Office: Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Socialist who for months called Trump every name in the book. That’s because Trump signed an executive order withdrawing from the negotiations over a controversial trade deal that both he and Trump swore was toxic to American workers.
“I am glad the Trans-Pacific Partnership is dead and gone,” Sanders said. “For the last 30 years, we have had a series of trade deals—including the North American Free Trade Agreement, permanent normal trade relations with China and others—which have cost us millions of decent-paying jobs and caused a ‘race to the bottom’ which has lowered wages for American workers.”
The Trump-Sanders agreement on the issue underscores the odd position in which labor activists and progressive Democrats now find themselves. They like Trump’s executive order, even if they consider it a symbolic gesture—TPP wasn’t ratified by Congress so the order doesn’t have an immediate impact on the U.S. economy—and even if it does nothing to assuage concerns about the many billionaires with whom Trump has stocked his cabinet.
However, it did signal that there at least are some arenas in which Democrats and activists can in fact agree with the new president—a president many of them profess to loathe.
“I think that symbolic or not, it does lay out at least a priority that we need to think about trade in a different way,” Charlie Wishman, the secretary-treasurer of the Iowa Federation of Labor, told The Daily Beast in a phone interview. He cautioned though that it’s too early to tell exactly how Trump is going to prioritize a new trade approach with actual policy.
“The policy specifics” of what Trump will do about trade issues “are going to be very important,” Wishman said. “We have yet to see exactly what that’s going to look like.”
Throughout the campaign, Trump railed against TPP, for which the Obama administration advocated despite general disapproval. “The Trans-Pacific Partnership is another disaster done and pushed by special interests who want to rape our country, just a continuing rape of our country,” Trump said during a stop in Ohio last year.
During the campaign, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton waffled on TPP, first calling the deal “the gold standard in trade agreements,” and later changing her tune during a debate with Sanders. The senator from Vermont and the reality show king from New York were more consistent , both agreeing that the deal was a disastrous proposition.
In response to Monday’s executive order, Sanders—who has signaled that he is willing to work with Trump on these issues while criticizing him for his divisive rhetoric and other policies—held out his promise of holding him to account.
“Now is the time to develop a new trade policy that helps working families, not just multinational corporations,” Sanders said. “If President Trump is serious about a new policy to help American workers, then I would be delighted to work with him.”
The issue of trade was something that Trump used to try to woo Sanders supporters and union members in the campaign, constantly reminding his crowds that he wanted to dissolve TPP. It was successful enough that he won over almost as many union households during the election as Ronald Reagan in 1984.
This was not lost on people like Wishman. But his concern is that the rest of the administration—particularly Trump’s appointment of Andrew Puzder, the former CEO of CKE Restaurants, the parent company of the Carl’s Jr. fast food chain, and an opponent of minimum wage increases, to head the Department of Labor—will lead to unfulfilled promises for the workers who voted Trump into office.
“They didn’t vote to have the Carl’s Jr. guy be the labor secretary,” Wishman said. “While a lot of the overall policy points that were emphasized in the campaign is what union members may have voted for, my fear is that they may have bought into something….a package that is a whole lot different than what they thought.”
Other champions for the dissolution of TPP like Representative Keith Ellison, a candidate for DNC chair, and the leadership of the Congressional Progressive Caucus said Trump wasn’t the one who brought an end to the trade agreement—progressive activists who had fought it for years did.
“Today was the final nail in the coffin for the TPP,” the CPC said in a statement provided to The Daily Beast. “The activists, advocates, and American workers who have spent the past 5 years fighting this trade deal deserve the credit for bringing about the end of the TPP—not President Trump. Together with its partners, the CPC has consistently opposed the TPP and laid out a vision for fair trade that must be incorporated into any future multilateral or bilateral trade agreement to receive progressive support.”
They added a familiar reservation about Trump’s cabinet however.
“It is up to President Trump to stand up to his billionaire cabinet and corporate boardrooms to create trade policies that benefit American workers, instead of increasing the profits and power of big corporations,” the statement read.
Trump is in a unique position not only as a Republican who seems to share a vested interest in trade reform with some Democrats, but also as a businessman with sprawling international interests and investments in overseas production for his products. This last point was emphasized by Pete D’Alessandro, a former campaign coordinator for Sanders.
“He should move his own companies back over here,” D’Alessandro told The Daily Beast in a phone interview. “Imagine if he shut those plants down and brought them back to America. I don’t know if he’s sincere or not but that’d be one way to prove it.”
The moment provides an opportunity for Democrats to find common ground with the new president which could bolster the legitimacy in their arguments when they disagree with him on other issues.
“I just don’t believe in opposing someone to oppose them if they’re doing something that you don’t disagree with,” D’Alessandro said. “Then it becomes a pretty cynical operation.”
So it’s with muted optimism that Democrats view this new order—a mostly symbolic gesture that can’t tell the whole story about Trump’s plans for trade or his sincerity as the proclaimed “greatest jobs president that God ever created.”
As Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a tweet, “TPP was dead long before President Trump took office. We await real action on trade.”