Saturday 10 December 2016

Conservative, populist, frequent policy-changer... So will the real Donald Trump please stand up?

Bill Schneider

Published 22/08/2016 | 02:30

Conservatives have written off Trump’s election chances. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Conservatives have written off Trump’s election chances. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump laid out his economic plan in Detroit just days ago. "I want to jump-start America," Trump announced, "It can be done. And it won't even be that hard."

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Is it a coherent plan? Don't kid yourself. He's a deal-maker. Trump's stands on the issues are just starting positions. Everything is negotiable.

The real-estate developer has already shifted his views on income taxes. Last year, he proposed four brackets, with a top rate of 25pc for the highest earners. Now it's down to three brackets with a top rate of 33pc.

Trump used to call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants to the US. 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 nominee Hillary Clinton changes her position on anything - the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, for example - she is 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 in Detroit. 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 their line on issues like free trade and entitlements. Many of his poll numbers are so low now that some conservatives are ready to write him off as a sure loser and focus their energies on saving the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Senate.

There was a lot in Trump's 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, he repeated his opposition to free trade and support for more infrastructure spending, which horrifies conservatives because it sounds like a stimulus plan.

Nor did he call for 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 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 rival throughout the primaries, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

In Detroit, Trump proposed giving parents a tax break for childcare expenses. That sounds 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.

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 said, "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 both her husband, Bill Clinton's, and Barack Obama's administrations.

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 said. But the Obama administration bailed out its car industry in 2009, which saved five million US jobs. General Motors, then on the verge of collapse, is now thriving and has paid back the bailout loans. (Reuters)

Bill Schneider is a visiting professor in the Communication Studies Department at the University of California - LA

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