MONESSEN, Pa. — Donald Trump called for a new era of economic “Americanism” Tuesday, promising to restore millions of lost factory jobs by backing away from decades of U.S. policy that encouraged trade with other nations — a move that could undermine the country’s place as the dominant player in the global economy.
In a 35-minute address, Trump threated to exit the more than two-decade old North American Free Trade Agreement and vowed to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations that has yet to take effect.
He blamed many of America’s economic woes on China, promising to label the country a currency manipulator and slap new tariffs on America’s leading source of imports, a decision with the potential to dramatically increase the cost of consumer goods.
The speech marked a significant break from years of Republican Party advocacy for unencumbered trade between nations, and drew immediate condemnation from GOP business leaders. Trump blamed the policies of Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, for the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs.
“This wave of globalization has wiped out totally, totally our middle class,” Trump said, standing in front of pallets of recycled aluminum cans on a factory floor. “It doesn’t have to be this way. We can turn it around, and we can turn it around fast.”
Video by Associated Press
Delivered in a hard-hit Pennsylvania steel town, the speech underscored the central message of Trump’s campaign: that policies aimed at boosting international trade — and America’s intervention in wars and disputes abroad — have weakened the country.
It’s an argument that found support among Republican primary voters, especially white, working class Americans whose wages have stagnated in recent years. Trump hopes it will yield similar success among the wider electorate that will decide the general election.
“I promise you, if I become president, we’re going to be working again. We’re going to have great jobs again,” he said. “You’re going to be so happy.”
But many economists have dismissed Trump’s promise to immediately restore manufacturing jobs as dubious at best, given the impact of automation and the many years it typically takes to negotiate trade agreements.
While renegotiating tougher deals with America’s foreign trading partners might help some businesses, manufacturing as a share of total U.S. jobs has been slipping for several decades. The number of such jobs has risen slightly since the end of the Great Recession, but the introduction of robotics and access to cheaper foreign markets has reduced U.S. factory employment to a total last seen around 1941.
In making his case for a new approach to trade, Trump recounted economic policies in place at the founding of the country — a time when goods traveled by horseback and schooner, the invention of the telegraph was still decades away and the advances of the Internet and broadband communication hardly imaginable.
The billionaire real estate mogul then skipped ahead to the 1990s, blaming the Clinton administration for negative impacts of globalization. He cited Bill Clinton’s support of NAFTA, which aimed to reduce barriers to trade between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization.
He challenged reporters to ask Hillary Clinton if she would be willing to denounce the Trans-Pacific Partnership on her first day in office and unconditionally rule out its passage in any form.
“Throughout her career — her whole career — she has betrayed the American worker. Never forget that,” Trump said.
Clinton’s position on trade has been a frequent attack line for Trump. She has supported some agreements, opposed others and flipped on both NAFTA and TPP, which she promoted dozens of times as secretary of state.
Video by PBS NewsHour
She now says she will back trade deals only if they fulfill a three-pronged test of creating “good jobs,” raising wages and improving national security.
The speech came as Trump, facing sliding poll numbers and a far larger Clinton campaign operation, is working to re-tool his message for the general election. In addition to a slew of new hires, he has been delivering prepared speeches aimed at calming the nerves of GOP donors and others concerned about his often combative style.
But Tuesday’s speech drew a scathing response from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a traditional Republican ally and leading business lobby.
“Under Trump’s trade plans, we would see higher prices, fewer jobs, a weaker economy,” the Chamber said on its Twitter feed, directing readers to a blog post that said Trump’s policies would lead to millions of job losses and a recession.
Democrats, meanwhile, didn’t wait for Trump to start talking before they jumped in to slam his ideas, detailing all the products his companies make overseas in a conference call with reporters.
“I’ll give Donald Trump this. On trade, with all of his personal experience profiting from making products overseas, he’s the perfect expert to talk about outsourcing,” said Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Clinton supporter. “Trump doesn’t make things in America.”
Lerer reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Ken Thomas and Josh Boak contributed from Washington.