In the wake of last night’s debate, I see a couple of annoying zombie lies that deserve a sharp blow to the brainpan today.
One is that President Barack Obama ‘released his birth certificate’ in 2011. In a very unusual move, Obama obtained and released his long-form birth certificate that year because conspiracy theorists would not accept the state-issued normal birth certificate (‘certification of live birth’) that had already been available for years, but wasn’t good enough for some reason.
Second is that President Bill Clinton should be held solely responsible for the North American Free Trade Agreement. Trump repeated this fib last night and everyone, even his critics, is repeating it today. Whatever you think of NAFTA or free trade, however, this line of discussion is taking place on an objectively-false basis.
Here is video of Clinton’s predecessor, President George H. W. Bush, signing the treaty, which his administration negotiated. Watch the historical record:
Where did these two falsehoods come from? Blame it on the age of the soundbite. In each case, people are simply accepting a false history as received because it is much easier than being factual about a convoluted or complicated truth.
Sure, the ‘Free Trade Area of the Americas’ (FTAA) project began with the 1979 presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan and continued at the initiative of Canada in 1989. Sure, Ross Perot spoke of a “giant sucking sound” during the 1992 presidential debates. But why delve into that much detail when ‘everybody knows’ that it was all Clinton’s fault?
In short, density deters objectivity.
This bit of ‘common wisdom’ persists because the agreement didn’t go into effect immediately when Bush signed it (in fact, NAFTA wasn’t fully implemented until 2008). Right wing reactionaries virtually ignored the entire issue until 1993, when talk radio hosts and Pat Buchanan conservatives got bored of their Branch Davidian conspiracy theories.
Another reason is that the myth has become popular on the left, too. After the WTO protests of 1999 galvanized critics of international capitalism, which still seemed triumphant in the dissolution of the Soviet empire, ‘progressives’ increasingly agitated against the bipartisan consensus for free trade — a process that gave us Occupy and the Bernie Sanders candidacy.
Now, it’s fine to criticize the principles of free trade, but Bill Clinton never pretended to oppose free trade agreements when he ran for president, and that sort of Democrat simply wasn’t on the table in 1992. Nor was it a mainstream Republican view.
To be sure, Clinton submitted NAFTA to Congress and eventually signed it — after he had negotiated changes that required Mexico to impose labor standards, safeguard the environment, monitor workplace conditions, etc.
These were valid critiques of Bush’s treaty, but it didn’t matter to critics that Clinton had improved the agreement, or that Congress had ratified it. Instead, critics spun Clinton’s changes as further blows to the American worker, and somehow a betrayal of Reagan’s legacy, all couched in the silliest hyperbole.
Along with the Assault Weapons Ban, it was one of many big changes that fearmongers used to motivate the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 — after which, any potential legislation about worker protections, environmental safeguards, or workplace safety were swept off the table to make room for impeachment.
All that paranoid populist revisionism has left a toxic legacy in the campaign of reality show star-turned-Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump. Mexicans were made out to be dirty, dangerous criminals in 1993. He’s still echoing those smears in his candidacy.
Donald Trump grossly overstates the negative effects of NAFTA. Nor is it correct to say that no jobs ever left American shores before NAFTA, or that the treaty has an especially-deleterious affect on American employment over automation, low wages abroad, the breaking of unions, and other contributing factors in the overall decline of American manufacturing employment.
And if the NAFTA treaty has proven a net loss for American workers, that isn’t because of anything Bill Clinton did to it. Nor is Hillary Clinton accountable for a single word of the treaty text.
As Trump’s usage shows, NAFTA has simply been incorporated into an old American tradition of blaming international conspiracies of one sort or another — lately, ‘globalists’ on the right and ‘capitalists’ on the left — for everything we dislike about the way things have changed.
Donald Trump once insisted that President Obama might secretly be a Manchurian candidate from Kenya and insisted on seeing his long-form birth certificate because the usual one wasn’t good enough. He tries to blame that one on a Clinton, too. See how that works?Click here for reuse options!
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