Reverberations matter. No time was that more clear than when the unthinkable to some became reality on the morning of Nov. 9: Donald J. Trump, the billionaire businessman and TV star, had upended the U.S. political order by winning the presidency.
Very few could say they saw it coming, especially against the polished political machine of Hillary Clinton, but many pointed to warning signs — a tidal wave sweeping the Western world, an unstoppable force called “populism” gathering steam and ready to wash away anyone who dared stand in its path.
The biggest example before November was Brexit, the British public’s collective thumbing of their nose at the European Union, a project that just a few years earlier was seen as deserving the Nobel Peace Prize for contributing to continental peace through economic integration.
To make sense of these seeming contradictions, pundits identified three major disenfranchising agents that, according to hastily formed conventional wisdom, caused both the British and American working classes to rise up and express their discontent at the polls: globalization, automation and immigration, which were premised on a world that works inclusively, even as its ruling powers aim to find intersections between the global good and their national interests.
We at Global Atlanta have always challenged the idea of the world being “flat.” Our experience reporting on global business has revealed too many peaks and valleys — called alternatively “trade barriers” or “market-access concerns” in business — to be able to make such a blanket statement, despite the way travel and technology have enabled new links to be created and sustained.
But we do have a sort of implicit bias in our publication that connections are a good way of ironing out these wrinkles, for the benefit of the greater whole. It’s worth noting how far we’ve moved away from that presupposition in a short time.
Even in the aftermath of the financial crisis, when the contagion of U.S. subprime debt set off a worldwide recession, it was mostly blamed on the greed of the so-called “1 percent” and not applied more liberally to the interlocking system that turned an American flu into a global epidemic of crippling pneumonia.
Even inheriting this mess, the Obama administration’s faith in the world order didn’t change drastically. The president, like most before him, viewed it as better off with an engaged — if not interventionist — America.
That approach trickled down locally. Mr. Obama’s National Export Initiative, aimed at doubling sales of U.S. goods abroad between 2009-14, set off a chain reaction of export promotion activities. Georgia’s trade team ramped up as exports soared, often using federal funding to attend trade shows and achieving record numbers in the process. Atlanta became part of the Brookings Institution’s Global Cities Initiative, a major component of which is export promotion at the metro level. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal joined up across party lines to plead for funding to deepen the Savannah port — one of the few with a near equilibrium on imports and exports.
All this happened as foreign investment (and students) poured into Georgia, reinforcing the link between engagement and economic vitality.
These efforts were welcome confirmations that what we had been showcasing for 20 years had finally started to go mainstream. While there were real problems with jobs displaced due to trade, at least a fragile consensus to have emerged at the leadership levels that the U.S. was better off when it welcomed the world.
Then came Trump’s election, a battering ram to the foundations of that ivory tower, wrecking these assumptions at a time when the U.S. dollar’s strength and unsteadiness in emerging markets made exporting tougher, and as the security environment became more and more uncertain — both in light of and in response to political concerns.
Trade became a whipping boy. Nuance now had no place, and facts didn’t matter: NAFTA was categorically bad, a job killer regardless of Mexico and Canada’s positions as top export destinations. China? An unabashed currency manipulator. Terrorism was the result of a clash of civilizations, a justification for building walls instead of bridges. The 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, signed in Atlanta in October 2015, was lined up for the chopping block.
In other words, after more than 20 years as a voice in the wilderness about globalization’s opportunities, we at Global Atlanta were offered a tantalizing moment of validation — only to have it swept out from under us.
In a way, that was good. It’s always beneficial for journalists to have their assumptions challenged, to weigh whether our treatment of issues was fair or fantastical.
But we were also saddened at the shift we found in our publication as a result of our observer’s lens. No longer could it be taken for granted that exports create opportunity or that immigration adds creativity and vitality to the American economy. We found ourselves having to write reflexively negative stories in a year where angst overshadowed some otherwise big wins for Atlanta’s global reputation.
While affirming new flights to Atlanta from Turkey and Qatar, we were forced to write about terror threats and labor disputes, respectively. The cheery story of the first German Christmas market in Atlanta was offset by the vigil its organizers held for victims of the Berlin bus attack. Before we could point out the highlights of France-Atlanta, we had to tell how the community gathered to mourn Nice. Welcoming the new Belgian consul general meant asking him about the fate of a Delta Air Lines route suspended due to an airport attack in Brussels. Positive stories about Atlanta’s fintech outreach in London were riddled with questions about the city’s status as a financial center post-Brexit.
What does this all this mean for us in 2017?
One thing we’ve learned is that uncertainty heightens our relevance and renews our focus. Globalists will continue to find in us stories that counteract the isolationist narratives emanating from the Oval Office, while the opposing side will see us take hard looks at the real impacts of trade and investment on lives here locally — including the ones that were left behind by the overall progress.
In all, we hope to remain the place Atlanta’s business and government leaders go for snapshots of the city’s orientation to the world, whatever emerges from today’s darkroom.