Donald Trump again defied Republican orthodoxy during an event in a former factory in New Hampshire on Thursday, declaring that “we’re better off paying a little bit more” for consumer products if it means protecting American jobs.
“The goods will also be of a higher quality,” Trump added. “We’re known for that.”
The comments came as Trump is building on the proposition that has surpassed immigration as his central campaign theme: that decades of trade pacts have depressed U.S. manufacturing and lowered wages.
Thursday’s speech, which included questions from an invited audience, supplemented a more formal address Trump delivered earlier this week in which he threatened to end trade pacts and impose tariffs. The speech drew criticism from the Chamber of Commerce and other longtime stalwarts of the GOP’s business wing, along with a lengthy rebuke from President Obama.
Trump pushed back against their criticism Thursday, saying that he is in favor of free trade but that the U.S. has done a poor job of making deals.
“Yes, I’m a free trader,” Trump said.
“Here’s my stance on trading: I want to make great deals for the United States,” he said. Yet he also threatened to impose taxes of 35% on companies that ship jobs overseas, a step that would likely require congressional approval and one that would not fit the usual definition of free trade.
The format exposed the risk Trump was taking in allowing unscripted questions, even though the event was restricted to invited guests. One member of the audience requested that more veterans get jobs in the Transportation Security Administration, making an offensive generalization about airport screening staff. “Get rid of all these heeby-jobbies they wear,” she said, an apparent reference to hijabs, or veils, worn by some Muslim women.
Trump tried to cut her off – “we are looking at that” – though he did not contradict her.
During his address, Trump argued that trade partners, including Mexico, have to believe America will walk away from a deal.
Trump, in response to a question from the audience, also urged Americans to buy more products that are manufactured domestically. Trump conceded he does a lot of business overseas, but did not mention that some Trump-branded products are manufactured abroad.
The presumptive GOP nominee also made a joke about Mexico, a country that has been targeted in many of his immigration and trade proposals.
“They’re getting ready to attack,” he said, when a plane overhead interrupted his speech.
Trump spent much of his speech discussing declining wages and job losses among the middle class, which he blamed squarely on the North American Free Trade Agreement and on China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, both of which were supported by former President Bill and Hillary Clinton. While it’s true that manufacturing jobs have declined, other factors, including technology, have played a large role.
“This is a factory and the legacy really of Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton,” Trump said, standing outside the former Osram Sylvania building in Manchester, which moved production to Mexico and China in 2014, laying off 139 workers.
Trump also introduced a man who said he used work there and had to train people from Mexico to replace him.
“The real Clinton global initiative is their economic plan to ship America’s jobs overseas,” Trump said, playing on the name of an arm of the Clintons’ charitable organization.
Trump once again made a play for Bernie Sanders’ supporters, asserting that he agreed with Sanders on the ills of trade but could actually solve the problem.
Trump alluded to his unusual mix of ideologies – one of several reasons he is having trouble attracting support from Republican Party leaders – during a radio interview on the nationally syndicated “Mike Gallagher Show” on Thursday. “In some ways, it’s like I’m running against two parties,” he told the host.
At the town hall, one of Trump’s questioners in the audience weighed in on another concern that some conservatives have about Trump, asking him to publicly declare that he would adhere the the Constitution.
“100%,” Trump said, thanking the man for the question.