Late August is a desperate season in America’s newsrooms, as anyone worth writing about has done their utmost to assure their names are kept far from the news cycle, so they can stay far from the office. The junior reporters and editors left to churn out copy are hungry for any story that can credibly lead a homepage, and President Trump was canny enough on Monday to give them one they could run with.
Just as the president prematurely claimed victory on a repeal of Obamacare and on a denuclearization deal with North Korea, Trump decided to address the nation from the Oval Office Monday to announce a very preliminary handshake deal that could possibly serve as a framework for an update to the North American Free Trade Agreement. In other words, this was news that only the most dedicated of trade policy experts should care about, but President Trump elevated to the status a national breakthrough.
Antics of this sort were inevitable. The president and other opponents of the global economic order have painted NAFTA as a singular evil for which many of ills of the modern American economy can be blamed. In reality, NAFTA’s impact on most Americans has been limited and dwarfed by factors largely outside of the control of American policymakers, like China’s embrace of markets and the development of new automation technologies.
The real news of Monday and Tuesday is not that the Trump Administration took a step forward NAFTA. That’s not a unique accomplishment—the Trans-Pacific Partnership was a much more complex agreement, negotiated over the course of more than a decade and two presidential administrations. Most notably, the drafters of TPP actually won the assent of more than ten partner countries, not just Mexico. The Trump Administration has a long way to go before a substantial renegotiation of NAFTA can actually be implemented. If it goes through with its threats to cut Canada out of a new deal, a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Mexico would have to be separately approved by Congress.
The real news of Monday and Tuesday is that the Trump Administration was successful in drafting major news networks in a public relations effort to portray itself as energetic and competent. Monday evening, CNBC.com posted the headline, “S&P, Nasdaq rise to record highs as US and Mexico strike trade deal.” The New York Times front page Tuesday morning declared that “NAFTA deal is set,” while The Wall Street Journal crowed that “U.S. and Mexico Agree on NAFTA rewrite,” even though a NAFTA rewrite is by definition impossible without the agreement of Canada.
What was once buried in the nether pages of Americas papers of records has been portrayed as a breakthrough for the dealmaking president, and Trump’s ability to manipulate the media in this fashion is more newsworthy than the fact that Mexico is willing to agree an as yet ill-defined sunset provision in a trade agreement with the United States. The president learned long ago that the media’s biases toward conflict and newness are more important to its decision making than its center-left biases on economic issues and far-left biases on social issues. Give the media something new to focus on today, like a press event from the Oval Office, and the media will cover it earnestly, regardless of how inconsequential the announcement.
Trump’s ability and willingness to exploit this bias helped propel him to the White House. Take, for instance, the fact that in 2016, voters trusted Trump on the issue of corruption more than they did Clinton by a nine-part margin. Though there were plenty of reasons to be uncomfortable with some of the actions of the Clinton Foundation, it was obvious by Election Day that the Trump Foundation served no purpose other than the enrichment of Donald Trump, and that a President Trump would have no misgivings about leveraging the office for personal gain. But the media’s focus on what has been newly revealed, rather than what is most important, made it so that not one of Trump’s many scandals came to define him as questions surrounding the Clinton Foundation came to define his opponent.
Markets have correctly identified yesterday’s announcement as a non-event that gets us only very incrementally closer to a renegotiation of NAFTA, a renegotiation that itself will not radically alter the business landscape across the United States, Mexico, and Canada. The most important conclusion to draw from Monday’s spectacle is that the President cares first in foremost about the optics of trade negotiations and not the substance. And if the media continues to let him play the role of fierce trade negotiator on television, he may decide he doesn’t have to make any actual policy changes at all.
Christopher Matthews is a writer who splits his time between New York City and Accra, Ghana, with an interest in the intersection of markets, the economy, and public policy. He previously held staff positions at Axios, Fortune Magazine, and Time Magazine, and has been published in Forbes and Debtwire.