Treating Donald Trump as Just Another Republican Presidential Nominee
Just because Donald Trump is so unconventional a presidential candidate, it does not automatically follow that we should immediately abandon our conventional criteria for judging his adequacy for the position. On the contrary, the reverse is more likely to be true: that the more unconventional he attempts to be, the more determined should we be – as the ultimate arbiters of his electoral fate – to insist that what worked well in the past as a guide for voting should work equally well this time.
Presidential candidates in the past have invariably been judged on the quality of the policies they propose, and on the adequacy of the policies of the party that they ostensibly lead. It is true that it is more difficult to mobilize the first of those judgment-calls this time around because of Donald Trump’s disinclination for policy-formation, but that lack of policy detail is itself something on which a judgment is required. And since voting for Donald Trump rather than for Hillary Clinton will likely bring yet more Republicans to public office further down the ballot, judging Trump as the Republican flag-bearer becomes all the more pressing the more difficult it is to judge Trump himself.
So let us do both jobs. Let us take stock of Trump the presidential policy-setter, and Trump the Republican, setting both against their Clinton alternative. Each stock-taking will only make it ever more obvious that the one thing which sane people should not do on November 8 is to vote for Donald Trump.
JUDGING TRUMP AS A POLICY-SETTER
Given the paucity of detailed policy proposals available on the Trump campaign web-site, and the regularity with which big policy positions are first announced by the candidate only to be then qualified or abandoned,1 many of us have been forced back these many weeks onto an indirect calculation. We have been forced to ask ourselves what can we deduce about possible future policy from his past record as a businessman, from the content of his stump speeches, and from his demeanor at both the rallies and (as of last Monday) the presidential debates. The results of that indirect calculation are invariably disturbing ones, and are even at times literally terrifying. As I have noted before,2 and as have many others,3 this particular Republican presidential nominee often appears to be simultaneously misogynistic, racist, and homophobic. His language seems occasionally to invite violence from others, and is certainly suggestive of a propensity for bullying opponents rather than for debating with them. Others have seen potential elements of danger in Donald Trump’s character,4 suggesting that he is now (and therefore might be as president) excessively narcissistic, and as such prone to be both quick to anger and slow to forgive. Thin-skinned and loose with facts, a recurrent fear among his political opponents is that being president would only intensify these character defects, whilst encouraging the more reactionary of his supporters to give vent to their equivalent propensities for discrimination and political violence.
Some of this character-analysis – perhaps even all of it – has to be provisional and speculative. But what is not so uncertain is what a Trump presidency will do in relation to the few specific areas of policy on which the Trump campaign website is clear: on immigration, on trade, and on taxation and the economy.5 On immigration from Mexico, for example, an incoming Trump administration will immediately build a very large wall – and have Mexico pay for it. Quite how Mexico will pay for it is still not fully clear, but the determination to impose those costs on Mexico is. On immigration from the Islamic world, a Trump Administration will build new obstacles to entry in the name of greater national security. Quite how such an Administration will square its toughness on Muslims with its need to maintain close working relationships with Muslim allies abroad is also not clear, but apparently Donald Trump as president will somehow manage both those things at the same time. On trade, a Trump administration will renegotiate its export and import relationship with a string of overseas economies and governments that are now using currency manipulation to worsen the US trade deficit, but again quite how that will be done – and in particular how China will be quickly brought to heel – is nowhere explained in detail.
But there is detail on the Trump website on one important thing at least – tax policy as a trigger to economic growth under a Trump presidency – and on this at least Donald Trump could not be more conventional. For all his railings against the bankrupt policies of the past, and against the inadequacies of the politicians who have advocated them, Donald Trump has chosen to tie his core domestic policy-flag to the oldest and most inadequate Republican Party policy of all – trickle-down economics. The Trump tax proposal cuts taxes on the biggest corporations and the richest individuals by Trump-like huge chunks, the better to enable them to create new jobs here in America. That tax cut is linked, in the Trump proposal, to the culling of regulations on a whole set of business practices – not least regulations on environmental protection – supposedly realizing via this bonfire of controls a rapid return to American shores of production lines based in cheaper labor markets abroad and of profit-accumulations now held off-shore. Again, however, key details remain unclear. Not least how a deregulating Trump Administration would compel US firms to stop outsourcing their production if simple tax changes are insufficient to that task. And more broadly, how a Trump Administration would prevent a re-run of what happened the last time a US President went in for large-scale tax cuts on the rich amid a bonfire of regulatory controls. The last time trickle-down economics was tried, by George W. Bush in 2001 and 2003, job-creation rates slowed to a post-1945 record low, and the deregulation (particularly of Wall street) eventually culminated in the worst financial crisis since 1929.
So we have to ask Donald Trump: how/why will economic life be different this time around – and we will need an answer from him that has more substance to it than simply that it will differ this time around because he is in charge. Narcissism is no substitute for policy, and bluster no substitute for analysis: so anyone keen to assess Donald Trump in the normal presidential way needs to press him hard on the detail of his economic policy proposals and on the adequacy of the analysis underpinning them. That pressing will be difficult, given how adept the candidate is at not answering direct questions; but to the degree that it is achieved, it is bound to leave the presser ever more convinced that a vote for Donald Trump is a vote for economic disaster.6
JUDGING TRUMP AS A REPUBLICAN POLICY-SETTER
If that is not bad enough, think what will also come down the pipe if all three branches of government are in Republican Party hands from next January. At home, we will see at the very least a Supreme Court with a restored ultra-conservative majority, a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and a budget cutting welfare payments to the poor under the disguise of returning welfare policy to the states. Abroad, we will see an even greater involvement in the Middle Eastern quagmire: more involvement in Syria, possibly even American troops back on the ground in greater numbers in both Iraq and Afghanistan. If Paul Ryan remains Speaker of the House and Mitch McConnell remains Majority Leader in the Senate, will a Donald Trump in the White House veto a Republican budget that – according to the calculations of the non-partisan Tax Policy Center7 – would by the time it is fully implemented in 2025 sent 99.6 percent of the tax cuts it contains to the richest one percent of Americans? (If the Tax Policy Center figures are right, the Trump plan would give further tax relief for the richest one percent of 10.6 percent of their income, compared to tax relief equivalent to just 0.5 percent of their incomes for the poorest 20 percent, and an actual tax hike for upper middle class families (those between the 60th and 95 percentiles).) No, of course there will be no such veto. Instead, a Trump-led Administration, should one occur, will preside enthusiastically over more policy-induced income and wealth inequality.
There are flickers of progress in some of the Trump policy proposals that do not sit well with mainstream Republicanism – a first stab at paid maternity leave and enhanced child-care support, thanks to the prodding of Ivanka Trump, and a willingness to fund much needed infrastructure investment – but even these policy commitments sit uneasily alongside a broader (and very mainstream Republican) campaign promise to reduce government debt while increasing military spending. And of course, there is only the most rudimentary level of detail on any of this currently available to us from the Trump campaign. Compare that to the range, detail and integrated nature of the many policy initiatives already planned and publicized by Hillary Clinton and her campaign team. The scale of the planning is so different in the Clinton case: in early September, more than 100,000 words in total in published plans, compared to only 9000 in the case of Trump.8 The origin of these plans is so different too: teams of academic experts, experienced policy-makers and think-tank researchers in the Clinton case; with – for Trump – a near total dearth of academic experts, balanced by the pressure of the Trump children and the support of a string of business cronies. And not all the Trump children are pressing progressive causes on their father. If his comments on Syrian refugees are any guide, Donald Trump Jr. for one most certainly is not.9
At the heart of the Republican Party’s 2016 economic platform, as at the heart of Donald Trump’s, stand commitments to tax cuts and business deregulation. The contrast with the content of the Democratic Party’s 2016 economic platform, and with that now on offer from Hillary Clinton, could not be starker. Radicalized to a degree by the bruising primary fight with Bernie Sanders, the Clinton economic plan mixes infrastructure spending and tax increases on high earners with tax incentives for profit sharing, a higher minimum wage, subsidized college costs, an easing of student debt, greater trade union rights and a commitment to equal pay.10 The question before us on November 8, therefore – issues of character and candidate aside – is which economic policy package is the more appropriate for the needs of the age.
My own view is this. The great myth that Republican presidential candidates peddle, election cycle after election cycle, is that the US economy struggles because it is over-taxed and over-regulated. The truth, by contrast, is that the US economy is struggling still primarily because middle-class wages are only now beginning to rise again after a decade of recession and its aftermath. We do not need more neo-classical supply-side economics favoring the already rich and privileged. What we actually need is more Keynesian-style strategic government investment, as part of a consciously designed and implemented Industrial policy geared to raising the minimum wage and strengthening the bargaining position of American workers. Neither candidate’s present economic package is fully adequate for the job, but there can be no doubt that a Trump-led Republican Administration and Congress would move us away from the adequate fulfilment of those needs, and that a Clinton-led Administration and Congress would move us nearer to their realization.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE MOMENT
Which is why this upcoming election is so important, and why normal criteria need to be applied. Donald Trump promises rapid and qualitative change without saying how he will deliver it. Hillary Clinton promises incremental improvements to an economic trajectory already set in place by the Obama Administration. Incremental and detailed policy may not be as easy to sell on the stump as is a grand rhetoric of change without detail: but since in politics the devil does so often lie in the detail, the absence of such detail in the Trump case should give us all reason to worry. If there was ever a time to unite behind the candidate who is promising steady progress to a better future, rather than one who is full of bombast, it is now. It is time for intelligence in politics. In the choice between bluster and gender, it is time to vote for Hillary Clinton. Let us simply hope that by the time that election day comes around, that truth is clear to more and more Americans; and that lower down the ballot, the Clinton coattails prove strong enough to bring at least the Senate back under Democratic Party control.
1 NBC News found 117 distinct policy shifts in 20 issue areas by Donald Trump since his campaign began. This in Editorial, “Why Donald Trump Should Not Be President,” The New York Times, September 25, 2016: Available at XXXX
3 Most notably the editorial in The New York Times cited above
4 See, for example, Joseph Nye, “Trump’s Emotional Intelligence Deficit,” posted on Social Europe , September 15, 2016: available at https://www.socialeurope.eu/2016/09/trumps-emotional-intelligence-deficit/
6See, for example, Mark Zandi et al, The Macroeconomic Consequences of Mr. Trump’s Economic Policies, Moody Analytics, June 2016: available at https://www.economy.com/dismal/analysis/free/283579
7 See Max Ehrenfreund, “Analysis: By 2025, 99.6% of Paul Ryan’s tax cuts would go to the richest 1% of Americans,” Washington Post, September 16, 2016: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/09/16/analysis-by-2025-99-6-of-paul-ryans-tax-cuts-would-go-to-the-richest-1-of-americans/
8 Bill Scher, “On Policy, It’s No Contest. Clinton: 112,735 words, Trump: 9,000,” posted on Campaign for America’s Future September 7, 2016: available at https://ourfuture.org/20160907/on-policy-its-no-contest-clinton-112735-words-trump-9000
David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.
He writes here in a personal capacity.