The Incredible Shrinking Populist: Donald Trump’s Tiny Economic Vision
On Monday, Donald Trump talked about the economy on television for an hour. That may have exceeded the graduate-level curriculum at Trump University. But the biggest lesson I learned is that Trump contradicts himself more, and becomes more typically Republican, with every passing day.
It’s rare to see Trump put much effort into anything, so it was almost likable to watch him work so hard to read his speech from a Teleprompter. All that concentration! It was like watching a child learn to draw.
Trump pretended to be unfazed as protesters from the Michigan People’s Campaign, all of them women, interrupted his speech 14 separate times – or was it 17 times? (Dave Johnson has more on the protesters and their demands here.) He scowled an authoritarian scowl at some of the interruptions but didn’t respond directly, even when a protester reportedly shouted, “Tiny hands! All you got is tiny hands!”
I don’t know if Trump has tiny hands or not. But when it comes to the economy, he definitely has tiny plans. We were promised a bold new vision. What we got instead was, with one or two notable exceptions, a warmed-over version of the House Republicans’ standard-issue voodoo economics.
Trump embraced the House GOP’s three-tiered income tax rate, with deep cuts in the highest bracket. He proposed a steep reduction in the top corporate tax rate and suggested eliminating the estate tax, which is only levied on the wealthiest heirs and heiresses, altogether.
Trump repeatedly contradicted or undercut his own statements, often seconds or minutes after he had made them. It was the verbal equivalent of that geometric construction known as a Möbius strip. If you stand on one side of a Möbius strip and keep walking, eventually you’ll wind up on the other side.
The more Trump spoke on Monday, the more he wound up on the other side of himself. Some examples:
● Trump boasted that he was going to “cut regulations massively,” promising to enact a temporary moratorium on new regulations upon taking office. Then he blasted China for having “no real environmental or labor protections” – measures that are, of course, regulations.
● “I am proposing an across-the-board income tax reduction,” Trump said, “especially for middle-income Americans.” Then he proposed a series of tax cuts that would primarily benefit corporations and wealthy individuals.
● Trump proposed to double Hillary Clinton’s proposed spending to rebuild America’s infrastructure – an initiative that is urgently needed and could create many good jobs. Then he proposed a massive round of tax cuts that would deprive the government of the revenues needed to pay for it.
● Trump promised to “increase choice and reduce cost in child care, offering much-needed relief to American families.” Then he announced a policy that would primarily benefit the wealthy, while doing little or nothing for most families.
As Michael Linden noted, a child care tax break wouldn’t help the one-third of families who don’t pay federal income tax. Under Trump’s plan a family in the top income bracket would get a $400 break for every $1,000 in child care expenses, while a middle-class family in the 15 percent bracket spending that same $1,000 would only get $150 in relief.
You could call it the “nanny deduction.”
Trump is still taking a maverick position on trade. But it’s hard to know how deeply held his convictions are, or how much he’ll fight for them, since both his running mate and his party’s congressional leaders hold the opposite view.
Trump the Populist is a tiny figure now, barely visible in the shadow of Trump the Purveyor of Tired Old Republican Ideas. Most of those ideas have already been tried and have already failed. George W. Bush’s tax cuts were associated with “the worst growth performance since the Great Depression,” in the words of economist Dean Baker. Deregulation led to the financial crisis of 2008, and to the disastrous BP oil spill.
These were human tragedies. They were also economic tragedies, robbing us of far more than the imaginary cost of regulation that is routinely cited by Republicans like Trump.
Why the transformation, or “tinification,” of Trump the Populist? For one thing, he seems to have no core values. And he has a problem: the Republican Party’s leaders are revolting.
By that I mean, at least in this case, is that they’re rebelling against Trump. The Christian Science Monitor is probably close to the mark when it calls this speech a “first step to unifying (the) GOP.” As economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin told the Monitor, this was “a peace offering to House Republicans.”
Trump’s choice of Detroit as the site for this speech was meant to convey his belief that this country’s industrialized economy can be restored to its mid-twentieth century heights. (He failed to point out that Wall Street interests – people much like the rich white male financiers on his team of economic advisers – played a key role in Detroit’s current financial difficulties.)
Trump painted the picture of a revitalized nation built by “American hands” (albeit of an unspecified size). At times his words sounded like the narration to a 1950s newsreel, the kind that featured black-and-white images of bustling mid-century towns and cities:
“American cars will travel the roads, American planes will connect our cities and American ships will patrol the seas. American steel will send new skyscrapers soaring all over our country.”
It’s an inspiring (if jingoistically expressed) depiction of the nation as it was during the era of post-World War II growth and prosperity. But that growth was made possible by government investment, which in turn was made possible by a tax code that asked far more of the wealthy and of corporations than we do today. “I consider it my patriotic duty to keep Elvis up in the 90 percent tax bracket,” said Elvis Presley’s manager at the time.
Under the proposal offered by Trump and House Republicans, that top rate for millionaires and billionaires – the “Elvis Index,” if you will – would be only 33 percent, barely more than a third of what the King presumably paid in his prime.
This is Trump’s biggest contradiction: He exhorts Americans to “think big” and “dream great things.” But Donald Trump is all talk and no action. In the end he’s just another selfish and small-minded Republican, with tiny dreams and a tiny vision in a nation that is still capable of greatness.