Evan Katz

*This post is a modified version of my POLS 4410H research paper, Trade as Morality Policy in the 2016 Presidential Election, from April 2017.

Unlike many prior elections, the 2016 presidential election featured an unusually strong focus on United States trade policy. A number of candidates challenged the enduring consensus on the benefits of free trade. On the right, businessman Donald Trump lambasted long-standing trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for undermining American competitiveness and threatened to levy harsh tariffs against corporations that offshored operations at the expense of American jobs. On the left, progressive cynosure Bernie Sanders criticized free trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on the grounds that corporations unfairly benefit from deals at the expense of the working class. Both Trump and Sanders employed moral rhetoric to back up their policy positions in a manner not seen for most other economic policies. Why would Trump, a billionaire businessman seeking the nomination for the traditionally conservative Republican Party, share similar policy positions on an economic issue like trade to those held by Sanders, a democratic socialist running on a progressive platform?

By tying in various theories of moral psychology, including Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory and George Lakoff’s strict father/nurturing parent model, I hypothesize that, despite disagreeing on most other policy issues, Trump and Sanders agreed on trade policy because both candidates ran populist, anti-establishment campaigns. Populism uniquely lends itself to moralizing issues because it is a lens through which people can frame specific issues that works in tandem with various—and sometimes contradictory—ideologies.

Trade as Morality Policy

According to Christopher Mooney, political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield, morality policy is “characterized, first and foremost, by debate over first principles,” where both sides of an issue hold deep-seated beliefs relating to that issue and play up moral arguments in their advocacy. Such policies tend to involve issues that lack broad societal consensus over first principles, leading to conflict between groups that may hold irreconcilable values. Morality policy is easily accessible due to its simplicity, allowing people to focus on the core principles that undergird the issue rather than the minutiae of a particular policy proposal. This increases the salience of and citizen participation in morality policy.

Although Mooney points out that the substance of a policy is irrelevant in determining whether that policy is an example of morality policy, economic policy is not traditionally viewed as morality policy. Indeed, trade policy is not technically simple, diminishing its salience and citizen participation. However, Mooney argues that, because societal perception of a particular policy determines whether or not that policy is an example of morality policy, any nonmorality policy can become morality policy, and vice versa. Policymakers and elites can reframe debate over issues in a manner that creates a moral dimension in order to rally public support for or against those issues. This can water down complex policies, increase their salience, and boost public participation. For example, politicians on the left—specifically Sanders—have attempted to moralize the minimum wage, reframing the issue by applying a moral dimension. Sanders has called wealth inequality “grotesque” and “immoral” and has called on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to help shrink the wealth gap, thereby increasing the issue’s salience and public engagement.

How the Candidates Moralized Trade

Both Trump and Sanders opposed free trade on the campaign trail and attempted to moralize the issue, but each candidate approached doing so differently. Cognitive linguist George Lakoff’s strict father/nurturing parent model (read more about them here and here) explains some of the differences. The “strict father” is an authority figure who protects his family from evil in a dog-eat-dog world and punishes those who do wrong in order to incentivize them to do right. Trump embodies that description almost perfectly; in a zero-sum world, he presents himself as the authority figure who will protect America from evil (in this case, trade deals that undermine the economy), compete to ensure the survival of the country (in this case, compete with other countries’ economies), and punish those that seek to do us harm (in this case, by placing harsh tariffs on corporations that move operations to other countries). In contrast, “nurturing parents” love and nurture their children, instilling values of compassion and empathy so that they may do the same for others in their community. Sanders falls into this category; he preaches about the evils of greed and indulgence, urging instead that people care for those who are less fortunate (in this case, pushing to ensure that all workers have jobs with decent wages instead of helping corporations generate more revenue).

Political scientist Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory (read more about it here) also helps elucidate the candidates’ strategies and rhetoric. With Trump, much of the rhetoric centered on the idea that the United States was being “ripped off” by other countries, namely Mexico and China. He argued that NAFTA, which eliminated trade barriers between the United States, Mexico, and Canada, allowed cheaper Mexican labor to undercut low-skilled American labor and contributed to the multibillion-dollar trade deficit the United States has with Mexico. He also opposed the TPP because he believed it would have weakened American manufacturing while bolstering other countries’ economies. Trump operates under the assumption that economics is a zero-sum game wherein gains by one country equal relative losses for another, and his rhetoric appeals heavily to the loyalty/ingroup foundation; trade deals disadvantage our country while benefiting other countries, and we should seek out deals that protect our interests instead.

With Sanders, emphasis is placed on the welfare of the working class. Trade deals give corporations an opportunity to increase their profit margins by exploiting weaker environmental and labor standards in developing countries, unfairly harming working class Americans who lose their jobs and have their wages suppressed. In Sanders’ view, such deals have already contributed to the loss of millions of jobs, making it difficult for working families to get a steady and reliable income stream. This rhetoric appeals heavily to both the harm/care and fairness foundations.

Because Haidt argues that liberals and conservatives hold distinct moral foundations, it makes sense that Trump and Sanders would appeal to different foundations. Liberals tend to care more about harm/care and fairness, while conservatives emphasize loyalty/ingroup, authority, and purity/sanctity in addition to harm/care and fairness. However, Sanders’ rhetoric also implicitly—but deliberately—appeals to the loyalty/ingroup foundation, which stands in contrast to orthodox liberal morality. Sanders employs an “us versus them” dichotomy when talking about the working class and corporations. For Sanders, the ingroup is working people, the common man, and the 99 percent, while the outgroup—and the enemy—is the corporate elite, the rich, and the “One Percent.”

If Sanders is indeed a liberal, why would he invoke a foundation that not only falls outside the confines of orthodox liberal morality, but also falls in line with the rhetoric used by the Trump campaign? The answer lies in the common characteristic between the Trump and Sanders campaigns, and offers an explanation for why trade became such a moral issue in the first place: populism.


Though plenty of scholars have dedicated their careers to studying the populist enigma, no universally accepted definition exists. Some scholars contend that populism “refers to a highly emotional and simplistic discourse that is directed at the ‘gut feelings of people.’” Others place more emphasis on the way specific policy issues are framed, arguing that populists forego rational policy analysis in favor of overt appeals to the people, usually in an attempt to consolidate power. Cas Mudde, an associate professor in the Department of International Affairs at the University of Georgia, believes that neither of those definitions is sufficient and advances his own: populism is “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be expression of the general will of the people.” However, unlike other ideologies, populism is a “thin-centered ideology” that espouses core values but lacks substance, leading it to be paired with other, more established—and in many cases, contradictory—ideologies like conservatism, liberalism, socialism, and libertarianism.

Mudde’s definition lends itself well to this discussion of rhetorical strategies employed by both Trump and Sanders on the campaign trail. First, it delineates a clear ingroup and outgroup. Trump frames the “pure people” as the American people and the “corrupt elite” as the out-of-touch Washington establishment whose policies have done little to solve the problems of ordinary Americans. For Sanders, the “pure people” are the poor and middle class workers looking to provide for their families, while corporations, Wall Street, and the One Percent make up the “corrupt elite.” Second, it provides a playbook for populists to successfully moralize policy issues. Something as intricate and esoteric as trade policy can be simplified by redefining it along the lines of the perpetual conflict between the people and the elite. When the people see that one type of trade policy helps the corrupt elite at their expense, they are more likely to fervently oppose it than if they hear that gains achieved from specialization as a result of free trade are not distributed evenly across society.

Why is Populism in Vogue?

Populism can be traced back more than a century, but populist positions on trade have not attracted nearly as much attention in the past as they have recently. In the post-World War II era, both parties have worked to maintain global institutions and promote open markets and the free flow of goods and services across borders. The Reagan administration championed free trade, initiating the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations that ultimately produced the World Trade Organization in the 1990’s. The Clinton administration famously signed NAFTA into law in 1994 with support from key members of both parties. Clinton also championed an entire foreign policy doctrine, “democratic enlargement,” on the basis of free trade; democratic enlargement holds that trade liberalization promotes the development of a consumer-oriented middle class in nascent democracies, engendering stability and allowing for democratic institutions to flourish within these states. While many presidents have engaged in “selective protectionism” to help protect certain industries like steel and agriculture, by and large the United States has remained firmly committed to free trade.

But the consensus has started to rupture. Author John Judis argues that populists succeed when the people become frustrated with status quo politics. This frustration can take any number of forms, including, but not limited to, economic (e.g. 1890’s populists that opposed laissez faire economics), racial (e.g. 1960’s populists that opposed integration), and nativist (e.g. 1850’s Know Nothings that opposed immigration of Irish Catholics). Economic frustration could help explain the current rise of populism, particularly with respect to issues like trade. The Great Recession upended nearly two decades of strong growth (save for minor blips), which called into question the neoliberal ideology that many believed helped create the Recession. Historically, while gains have not been distributed evenly, most Americans garnered some benefits as a direct result of free trade, but absent strong growth, those gains have been increasingly hard to come by. Because it seems like only certain groups benefit from trade, others have begun to oppose it. Trump and Sanders both picked up on this frustration and played to it in their respective campaigns.


For all their differences, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are very much alike in their opposition to trade. Their rhetoric may appeal to different groups, but deeper analysis interestingly reveals that both candidates employed populist tactics as a means of moralizing trade policy. Treating free trade as a policy that helps the “corrupt elite” at the expense of the “pure people” simplified the issue of trade to fit the narrative of an ongoing conflict between both groups, increasing its salience and drawing greater amounts of citizen participation. This rhetoric caught on quickly because both candidates tapped into frustration with status quo politics that many believed created the Great Recession and subsequent slow growth.

These observations offer insight into the nature and tactics of populist movements around the world, from the National Front in France to Brexiteers in the United Kingdom to populist campaigns in the United States. Understanding why populism catches on can give elites tactics for how to avoid fanning the flames of frustration that incubate the ideology. Elites can also attempt to use populist framing to generate support for status quo positions in response to anti-establishment populist movements.