The Phony Populism of Donald Trump

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is seen on a monitor while delivering a speech at the Detroit Economic Club in Detroit on Aug. 8. (Photo: Sean Proctor/Bloomberg)

The Phony Populism of Donald Trump

Last week, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump suggested that "Second Amendment people"could rise up against Hillary Clinton if she wins the election and called President Obama "the founder of ISIS

Last week, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump suggested that "Second Amendment people"could rise up against Hillary Clinton if she wins the election and called President Obama "the founder of ISIS." He also delivered a policy speech at the Detroit Economic Club that, understandably, received much less attention.

Given Trump's near-constant breaches of common decency, many people have given up on parsing the details of his policies, which can feel at times like complaining about the music in a crashing car. Yet while Trump's affinity for regressive economics is nowhere near the top of the list of reasons to oppose him, there is still a real possibility that he could become the nation's chief policymaker, and the policies he outlined last week counteract one of the prevailing narratives of the election -- that Trump is a "populist."

"But Trump's populism, like so much of his public image, is a deceptive marketing ploy."

Over the course of the campaign, Trump has been consistently portrayed as a populist candidate, the Republican counterpart to Bernie Sanders in a race shaped by widespread anger toward the political and economic elite. This perception has been reinforced by Trump's ritual humiliation of the Republican Party establishment in the primaries, as well as his overwhelming reliance on the support of working-class whites.

But Trump's populism, like so much of his public image, is a deceptive marketing ploy. When it comes to actual policy, Trump is proposing mostly the same regressive ideas that Republican candidates from Ronald Reagan to Mitt Romney have been peddling for decades.

The cornerstone of Trump's economic agenda is a massive income tax cut that would disproportionately benefit the very wealthy. After previously calling for the top tax rate to be slashed to 25 percent, Trump last week endorsed a top rate of 33 percent, matching the plan that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has put forward. Trump is also proposing a special 15-percent tax rate for "pass-through" income that would enable many top earners -- who account for more than two-thirds of such income -- to be taxed at a much lower rate. And like most establishment Republicans, Trump would abolish the estate tax, which applies to an infinitesimal percentage of the wealthiest Americans.

Trump is also doubling down on the philosophy behind Romney's oft-mocked declaration that "corporations are people." Trump's plan would cut the corporate tax rate by a whopping 20 points -- twice what Romney proposed in 2012 -- from 35 percent to 15 percent. Meanwhile, he is proposing a moratorium on federal regulations, promising more of the lax oversight that is responsible for economic and environmental disasters in recent years.

These supply-side policies will do nothing to help the working-class voters Trump claims to represent. But they are exactly what you would expect from the economic brain trust he recently unveiled, which is dominated by white men, including "several billionaire bankers and investment managers." (In fact, Trump only added women to the team on Friday in response to criticism.)

Trump's most notable deviation from his party's corporatist agenda is his opposition to trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But as Economic Policy Institute president Larry Mishel has argued, Trump's posture "is a scam." While Trump complains that the United States doesn't "win on trade," making vague promises to negotiate "better" deals, he also has a long history of manufacturing Trump-branded merchandise abroad. There is simply nothing in Trump's record or policies to indicate that he is actually concerned about the workers affected by the trade policies he laments.

"Donald Trump fashions himself a populist, but his economic plan just recycles the failed policies of deregulation and massive tax cuts for the rich and corporations," Mishel wrote in response to Trump's speech. "If such policies were effective, we would remember George W. Bush's presidency as one of great prosperity instead of a period of stagnant wages for blue- and white-collar workers."

By contrast, Clinton is campaigning on a platform full of populist economic ideas that Sanders helped mainstream during the Democratic primaries -- from expanding Social Security, to a $15 minimum wage, to cracking down on Wall Street. During her economic speech in Michigan last week, Clinton sounded like a card-carrying member of the "Warren Wing" of the party, offering her strongest condemnation of TPP to date and vowing to rewrite the rules of the economy to work better for everyone -- though she still needs to speak out forcefully against potential efforts to pass TPP in the lame-duck session of Congress.

The challenge now for Clinton and the party is to not back down. With a growing number of Republicans abandoning Trump's sinking ship, Clinton should not reward them by sacrificing any part of her agenda for the sake of an endorsement, especially when that endorsement is unlikely to last beyond Election Day. Instead, she should make clear that in defeating Trump she also intends to defeat his ideas by unapologetically embracing the progressive populism needed to move the country forward.

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