Donald Trump changes positions all the time, as he tries to placate nervous conservatives and still beat the populist drum, says Bill Schneider
REPUBLICAN presidential nominee Donald Trump has laid out his economic plan. “I want to jumpstart America,” Trump announced, “It can be done. And it won’t even be that hard.”
Is it a coherent plan? Don’t kid yourself. He’s a dealmaker. Trump’s stands on the issues are just starting positions. Everything is negotiable.
The property developer has already shifted his views on income taxes. Last year, Trump proposed four tax brackets, with a top rate of 25% for the highest income-earners. Now it’s down to three brackets with a top rate of 33%.
Trump used to call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants to the United States. Now he says he wants to ban immigrants “from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism”. That’s a broader ban (France?), but without a religious test that critics found offensive.
Trump changes positions all the time. But his supporters don’t seem to care. Why? Because he’s not a politician. He has no fixed ideology.
“I like being unpredictable,” he boasts.
If Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton changes her position on anything — the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, for example — she is instantly branded as untrustworthy. She’s a politician. She is expected to have convictions. Trump has only instincts.
His instincts pulled him in two different directions on Monday. On the one hand, his speech, which he read from a prepared text, was aimed at satisfying anxious conservatives.
Trump worries them because he deviates from the conservative line on issues like free trade and entitlements. Many of his poll numbers are so bad now that some conservatives are ready to write him off as a sure loser and instead focus their energies on saving the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Senate.
There was a lot in Trump’s Detroit speech to reassure these conservatives: Huge tax cuts including an end to the estate tax; a moratorium on new government regulations (“I want to cut regulations massively”); and a call for more fossil-fuel drilling.
On the other hand, Trump repeated his opposition to free trade and his support for more infrastructure spending, which horrifies conservatives because it sounds like an economic stimulus plan.
Nor did he call for any government spending cuts. Trump has no interest in an austerity programme. His base is populist, not conservative. His core support comes from white, working-class men. The populist impulse is conservative on social issues. Trump’s supporters respond enthusiastically to his anti-immigrant message. But they tend to be fairly liberal on economic issues. Like his opposition to free trade deals, a position Trump shares with Clinton’s primary rival, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
In Detroit, Trump proposed giving parents a tax break for childcare expenses. That sounds pretty populist. Except that it will help mostly high-income taxpayers. Low-income families don’t have a lot of tax liability to benefit from high childcare expenses.
Conservatives want to reduce spending on social security and medicare, the two biggest government spending programmes. But they are the two most popular government programmes. Trump doesn’t talk about cuts for fear of angering his populist base. Nor does he talk about another cause dear to the right — reducing the national debt.
“The man doesn’t have a limited-government bone in his body,” one conservative blogger complained a few months ago.
Trump proposed no way to pay for his proposals. Unless you want to believe he could do it by raising tariffs on imports — something that would shock conservatives.
“He’s put social security and medicare in a lockbox,” a University of Michigan economist told Politico, “promised massive tax cuts — which he claims at his rallies are for the middle class but mostly go to the rich — and he claims he’s going to balance the budget. These things are incompatible.”
Trump’s attitude: So what? They’re just starting positions. Conservatives don’t like them? Let’s make a deal!
The gist of his economic message was “change”.
“Ours is the campaign of the future,” Trump insisted. “All we have to do is stop relying on the tired voices of the past.” Like that of Hillary Clinton, who is inescapably tied to the administrations of both her husband, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.
Trump used Detroit as the symbol of failure. “The city of Detroit is the living, breathing example of my opponent’s failed economic agenda,” he told the Detroit Economic Club.
Hillary Clinton is scheduled to speak in Detroit tomorrow. The Obama administration bailed out the automobile industry in 2009, which saved some 5m US jobs. General Motors, then on the verge of collapse, is now thriving and has paid back the bailout loans. You think she might mention that?
Bill Schneider is a visiting professor in the communication studies department at the University of California, Los Angeles.
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