Donald Trump Is Running as a Conservative Republican

This guest post was written by Lawrence Glickman, Professor of History at Cornell University (and a friend from long ago when we were both graduate students at Berkeley).

As the summer of Trump turned into a phenomenon for all seasons, the Donald’s typical stump speech has grown into a bloated piece of performance art, lasting about one hour. A lot of that time is filled with bluster about how well he is doing in the polls, about how The Art of the Deal is his favorite, I mean second favorite book, after the Bible. And usually there are several more comments along the lines of, “by the way did I mention I’m doing well on the polls.”

In his speech in Des Moines on February 1, the evening of the Iowa caucus, Trump had to radically distill his campaign pitch into a two minute appeal. Presumably the pithiness forced him to highlight the most important parts of his campaign message. So what did he say? What can his candidacy be boiled down to? It turns out that for all the talk about Trump’s “populism” and his embrace of unorthodox positions, he offered talking points would have been familiar at a Rubio, Cruz, or for that matter, Jeb! rally.

Trump began by saying that “Obamacare is going to be repealed and replaced.” Then, he observed about the government that “everything that we’re doing has been wrong.” After condemning our unsustainable debt (“we owe 19 trillion dollars”) he discussed misplaced and wasteful priorities: “the budget that we just approved…funds everything that all of us in this room don’t want to see it fund.” He complained about the Iran deal and discussed the need to “build a wall” along the Mexican border.

Other than Trump’s signature claim that “Mexico is going to pay for the wall,” there was nothing outside the Republican mainstream in his litany. Compared to the other Republican candidates, who regularly spout apocalyptic rhetoric about ISIS or about dangerous trends in government overreach, his view that “we’re in trouble” seems completely in tune with the GOP chorus. Trump, being Trump, did toot his own horn, although, he assured the audience, not in a “braggadocious way” by talking about his “great, great company.” But that was only to highlight his credentials to run the country “the way it’s supposed to be run,” presumably in a business-like manner.

I recite the main points of Trump’s brief remarks to highlight the fact that on the issues he is running a remarkably mainstream campaign by the standards of the contemporary GOP. Trump is not much of a conservative apostate. To the extent that his campaign may have been weakened by his disappointing showing in Iowa, it is not because he has rejected the basic positions of the Republican Party. Indeed, his speech in Des Moines, not unlike most of his other stump speeches, was almost a comically generic species of conservative boilerplate: Condemn Obamacare; check. Denounce the dangerous direction of liberal government; yep. Caution about the dangers of the debt and the waste and misplaced priorities of the wasteful bureaucrats; done.

Let us stipulate that in his heart of hearts Trump himself may not be a true conservative. It is true that in the past (mostly pre-2000, when he was considering a Reform Party run) Trump expressed liberal positions on abortion rights, health insurance, and taxing the wealthy. The important fact is that this time around he has campaigned as a conservative, at least as the term is understood today. His deviations from party orthodoxy have been largely in the areas of tone and style rather than policy. Yes, he has demonstrated a willingness to push extreme positions to their ultimate limit (“I’ll see your anti-amnesty view and raise you by promoting the expulsion of eleven million undocumented people living in this country.”) But even this extremism has been utterly mainstreamed and embraced by the GOP’s relative moderates. Remember Mitt Romney’s call to “double Guantanamo” back in 2012, or his speech to the NRA in which he condemned the Obama administration’s “assault on our freedoms – our economic freedom, our religious freedom, and our personal freedom”? Trump may be the most effective purveyor of the stridently tough tone, but pretty much all of his fellow candidates aim for the same persona.

One of the fundamental ideas at the heart of modern conservative rhetoric has been the delegitimization of both government as an institution and those elected officials and “bureaucrats” entrusted with governing. This is what Trump did in Des Moines and what he has been doing since the summer. Trump describes the US as a failed state, but so does every other Republican candidate, who also share his views that government is incompetent (Obamacare), that its leaders are derelict (Iran deal), and that they are spendthrifts who prioritize the wrong things (a budget that fund things that “all of us in the room don’t want to see it fund.”). Many commentators have assumed that his views on government are substantially different from the other Republican candidates for the presidency. But there is very little evidence to support this view; all of the other GOP candidates have offered variations on the themes of decline and incompetent government. To the extent that Trump proposes statist positions that are unconventional for the contemporary Republican party, he does so by offering a strongman, “l’état c’est moi” justification. He has not articulated a vision of government spending for the public good, but rather a more personal, maybe even braggadocious, notion that he will get things done because he uniquely good at making “deals” and managing businesses. This is why he talks about “running” the country rather than governing it. But again this does not distinguish him from a movement that has valorized tough guys who get things done.

Another sustaining idea of the modern Republican Party is tax cuts for the wealthy. Trump’s tax plan, despite his claims to the contrary (“It would cost me a fortune”) is conventional red-meat conservatism: according to the Tax Policy Center, it would “benefit the wealthiest Americans while saddling the economy with trillions of dollars in new debts.” In recommending the elimination of the estate tax, Trump even uses the term “death tax,” the favored phrase of the Norquist wing of the party.

On the minimum wage, which he does not want to raise, he has staked out a position to the right of many Republicans. In the October Republican presidential debate, Neil Cavuto, the moderator, noting the protests of the “Fight for $15” movement to roughly double the federal minimum wage from its current level of $7.25, asked the candidates whether they “were sympathetic to the protestors’ cause since a $15 wage works out to about $31,000 a year?” Trump was blunt in response. “I can’t be” sympathetic, he claimed. The problem. Trump noted, is that with “taxes too high, wages too high, we’re not going to be able to compete against the world.” Although Trump said, “I hate to say it,’ the answer to the problem of low wages was that “people have to go out, they have to work really hard and have to get into the upper stratum.” Trump rejected the use of the helping hand of government as a means of promoting upward mobility. But it should be noted that Trump’s callousness toward the plight of working people is also consistent with a political party that views everyone as a budding entrepreneur and that rewards only “job creators.” As was demonstrated by Eric Cantor’s, the former House Majority leader, classic tweet on Labor Day in 2012—“Today, we celebrate those who have taken a risk, worked hard, built a business and earned their own success”—the party has trouble recognizing that workers might be a unique category in the American economy, whose needs are not coincident with venture capitalists.

An examination of Trump’s campaign website supports this interpretation of Trump’s candidacy as fundamentally conventional. Only five positions are laid out and three of them align with conventional contemporary conservatism: “Second Amendment Rights,” “Immigration Reform,” (although he does go farther than his rivals, with his calls for deportation), and “Tax Reform” (meaning, as we have seen, hugely regressive tax cuts). The other two positions (“U.S.-China Trade Reform” and “Veterans Administration Reforms”) arguably differ in emphasis from the mainstream Republican Party view. But both reflect his contention that terrible leadership is harming the country and about the incompetence of government officials, positions both entirely in keeping with Republican rhetoric. Although many commentators note Trump’s unorthodox support for Social Security and promotion of infrastructure spending, his website says nothing about either. To be sure, Trump has highlighted the benefits of infrastructure spending in Crippled America, his campaign book, and he mentions this often in speeches. But he has personalized these issues, as he has health care, which he promises will be provided, although he has released no plan. The impression he gives is that government might do some good things under a Trump administration but only in virtue of Trump, not because government has a unique role to play in binding our political culture and economy. Rather than offering an anti-conservative vision, these uses of government seem to rely on the kind of “magic asterisks” that have allowed tax-cutting Republicans, like Paul Ryan, to claim that they support popular spending programs. And in Trump’s case it is not great programs that he endorses but his singular ability to make good on them.

Commentators have settled on “populist” as the best label to describe Trump. And there is some justification for placing him in that tradition, especially because of his racial and economic nationalism, his willingness to bash leaders not just in government but in the world of business, his expressions of righteous anger, and his diagnosis of corruption and malfeasance (not to mention “stupidity”) on the part of elites. But traditionally populists have offered a vision of government that would serve, rather than undermine the (white) working class. Trump does not emphasize a positive state as a countervailing force to corporate power. Nor does he suggest that the nation can be resurrected by new programs, a new tax code or by better laws. Instead, his is a charismatic populism in which the nation can be saved by him and only him. But this personal politics does not challenge the antistatism embedded in contemporary conservatism.

If the egotism of his vison makes him an outlier, his statements about politics, policy, and governing are utterly mainstream.  With all the ink spilled in the reporting about Trump, the fundamental unoriginality of his positions has been underemphasized. Trump is surely a unique candidate but this is a uniqueness born of his embrace of celebrity culture, not because of his disclaiming of fundamental conservative positions. This may be the most disquieting thing of all about his campaign. For if Trump is running a campaign very much in the modern conservative grain, then the candidates, like Marco Rubio, being described as “mainstream” or “establishment” are, in fact, his near ideological twins.

21 thoughts on “Donald Trump Is Running as a Conservative Republican

  1. I agree the differences are small and given his bluster it is easy to see him as all things to all Republicans who can easily walk back any of his claims or adapt them to his purposes. Overall he stresses competence and less anti state than anti bad state, support for social security, and less militarily aggressive even with militant bluster, so is more mainstream than conservative and less likely to be subservient to conservatives. Plenty conservative but not in traditional ways of small government, anti social security, military adventures, but also less subservient to big business than the mainstream.

  2. As you point out, 90% of Trump remarks ( at least on TV) deal with how well he is doing in the polls. NOTHING about policy decisions on climate change,tax reform (although I did hear him criticize taxing fund managers’ being taxed at capital gains rate instead of ordinary income but that was early on. But to be fair, all I hear from Rubio is similar, i.e., increase the Defense budget while cutting taxes, etc.) Your close analysis hits the nail on the head as to Trumps ignorance of world affairs and domestic issues.
    In the interest of full disclosure, my objective remarks may be colored by my paternal relationship to Professor Glickman.

  3. “Commentators have settled on “populist” as the best label to describe Trump.”
    APPEALING TO THE LEAST COMMON DENOMINATOR in American politics is only “populist” when it isn’t actually the empty fear mongering platform of an entire party but a maverick brand that stands out as contrary to the more established (stamped and certified) elitist endorsed propaganda. In other words generic rather than a name brand membership of herd management. Commentators, in the meantime, all seem to consider themselves political experts and saturate themselves in surround sound professional (paid) expertise that are involved in the circuitry (3 ring Monty circus of promises).
    Trump has broken all the paint by numbers rules and broken the political fourth wall (see:

    Gotham will never be the same. Meanwhile, the ‘Penguin’ Cruz
    has been up to subterranean tricks and the game is truly becoming competitive exclusive showmanship.

    The choices are becoming vivid and livid, but the show must go on.

  4. One of the best studies to date! Thank you. How does Trump compare to Berlusconi? Is Trump the American Berlusconi?

  5. The idea that Trump actually has a real platform is something of a cognitive question on perception. We do tend to try to see patterns and wholes where there are only fragments and pieces. Trump fools the media and the intellectuals at their own game of analysis. In the egotistical world of the Donald, he is merely a cult of personality.
    ” A cult of personality arises when an individual uses mass media, propaganda, or other methods, to create an idealized, heroic, and at times worshipful, image, often through unquestioning flattery and praise…”

  6. The MOVIE:
    Gotham will never be the same!

    The New Batman Movie Cast:

    The Joker (Trump?); the Riddler (Rubio); Poison Ivy (Sarah Palin) ; Two Face (Chris Christie); Penguin (Cruz); Mr. Freeze (Ted Bush)

    Bat woman (Carly Fiorina)

    But who would be Batman? Ben Carson? (The Will Smith’s Oscar boycott has worked!)

    Gotham will never be the same! The Movie…coming soon to a district near You!

  7. How many episodes of “The Apprentice” are there…? Why is that not enough to gain a sense of how Trump operates as a “capitalist” and manages “workers”…? Would Rubio’s casino sugar daddy ever go live on camera showing the world his true philosophy towards “worker’s rights”?

    Bottom line is no one “believes” that the people who created the NOW reality for the 99% have some kind of vision or philosophy for the future! Even “stupid” people can figure that out – the “boss” is going to be meaner and meaner, that trajectory is set in ALGORITHM STONE in the “dark pool derivatives” virtual devil-world. Yes, I take the atheist route when it comes to believing in the “devil” – it’s just your average psycho-human. The Shamans of Technology BELIEVE in that no-see-’em “god”, don’t they? The Math God of Virtual….

    The Kangaroo Court that has never stopped vilifying President Jimmy Carter went into full court assault when Carter’s administration passed the “Income Average” tax plan – meaning you pay taxes based on an average of 5 years income. For those people – millions age 50+ that went from 75K to zero over the past five years – AND ARE NOT EVEN COUNTED BY GOVERNMENT WHEN CALCULATING THE UNEMPLOYMENT NUMBERS – small business owners and 1099 people are underwater big time with back taxes – and the IRS continues to levy “penalties” and INTEREST on back taxes “owed” the last time those people HAD an income – 5 years ago.

    Trump might offer a better “deal” once he finds out what has been going on. At the very least he can serve as a role model for how “Middle Class” throwaways (you do not exist anymore as “unemployed”) can make a tax deal by changing the tax laws like was done under Carter – INCOME AVERAGING.

    I’d rather have Lewis Black, the comic, than Sanders. Sanders wants you to believe he won’t pull a Lucy on Charlie Brown with the football when his FOREIGN POLICY clearly indicates he would!

    Is Baseline Scenario not an economy site? Why not stop the PCism soaked psychobabbling and talk about TAX POLICY?

  8. The only question left is … will satan spoons … feed his followers into the history books or pay the consequences for having the blood of the lord on his hands. Eve was warned that if she made Adam from her rib, he would ruin her entire universe, and 4.5 billion years later, he has done just that. There are no gods, just satan and simple mortal humans trying to survive the wrath of his ugliness. TAX THAT!

  9. Trump will IGNORE the insane, no matter how much $$$ they have, what “beliefs” they have about women or who is “anti-wha’ever”, will shut off the Hologram Man transmissions, and get down to business….

    This person is NOT an “American” – no one born and bred in USA is capable of producing such delusional rantings in lieu of “problem solving”:

    “skunk” channels the voices in his head, “Eve was warned that if she made Adam from her rib, he would ruin her entire universe”…

    Does that sound like anything Jesus taught?

  10. Sincere civic literacy and engagement (social, political, economic) has either been tamped down or removed all together (the WWF version is currently prevailing).
    13-17 y/o’s should have a reasoned and coherent concept of “The American Dream”, as well as the things which may hinder or block connecting with sustainable opportunity.
    Merely the dialogue starts the next generation, not just thinking about the challenges but also the way in which a civic minded, democratically engaged citizenry can push for public purpose.

  11. Here are Trump’s positions according to his website.

    He will also balance the budget — quickly. Probably the end of DoE, EPA, BLM, Import-Export and a handful of other bureaucratic agencies in citizen overreach.

    He will protect SS by growing the economy. Can he do it….? Better than Obama, perhaps….? (BTW, can anyone name *anything* that the nation “bought” for its enormous bailout pkgs except some crony capitalism gifts to green companies that went bankrupt…?)

    He will abolish the fascistic CommonCore.

    He will protect the 2nd amendment.

    He will abolish PC and, beyond your racist sneers, he will be an honest broker, supporting excellence in all things, from all people. He will help but not support faux equality, where, for example, we must all avert our eyes and make excuses because the head of the Detroit School Board is illiterate. “We must make allowances…” …smile… And we are probably, thanks to the excited progs going to elect a loudmouth BLM leader as the next mayor of Baltimore whose only qualification is a talent with a megaphone. Goodbye Baltimore?

    (Do you know what, exactly, the overlooked outstanding black Oscar talent was this year? Or, do we just have to assign X number of nominations and awards, to make things “equal.”)

    Frankly, I’m of the opinion that it is, now, Trump — or die.

    …Lady in Red

  12. Paul Craig Roberts on Michael Hudson’s Killing the Host
    (Posted on February 6, 2016 by Yves Smith: Naked Capitalism)
    Paul Craig Roberts:
    ” The problem for Americans is that both political parties regard the needs of the American people as a liability and as an obstacle to the profits of the military/security complex, Wall Street and the mega-banks, and Washington’s world hegemony. The government in Washington represents powerful interest groups, not American citizens. This is why the 21st century consists of an attack on the constitutional protections of citizens so that citizens can be moved out of the way of the needs of the Empire and its beneficiaries.”
    Paul Craig Roberts.
    All things considered:
    Nothing these days is totally political logic for campaigns. It would be an incredibly beautiful thing to see Bernie Sanders ask Elizabeth Warren to run as his Vice President. I think the country would get over its regionalism with such a powerful combination.

  13. “The essence of parasitism is not only to drain the host’s nourishment, but also to dull the host’s brain so that it does not recognize that the parasite is there.”
    From the editorial summary for
    Michael Hudson’s new book release:
    Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy
    The Failure of Laissez Faire Capitalism Paperback – June 1, 2013
    by Paul Craig Roberts (Author)
    108 customer reviews

    Publishers Review:
    “Former Wall Street Journal editor, and Assistant Secretary of the US Treasury Paul Craig Roberts book is a major challenge both to economic theory and to media explanations of the ongoing 21st century economic crisis. The one percent have pulled off an economic and political revolution. By offshoring manufacturing and professional service jobs, US corporations destroyed the growth of consumer income, the basis of the US economy, leaving the bulk of the population mired in debt. Deregulation was used to concentrate income and wealth in fewer hands and financial firms in corporations “too big to fail,” removing financial corporations from market discipline and forcing taxpayers in the US and Europe to cover bankster losses. Environmental destruction has accelerated as economists refuse to count the exhaustion of nature’s resources as a cost and as corporations impose the cost of their activities on the environment and on third parties who do not share in the profits. This is the book to read for those who want to understand the mistakes that are bringing the West to its knees.”

  14. An interesting Historic note certainly relevant today as it was then::
    Who are to be the electors of the Federal Representatives? Not the rich more than the poor; not the learned more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscurity and unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States (James Madison, The Federalist No. 57).

    The difference most relied upon, between American and other republics, consists in the principle of representation (James Madison, The Federalist No. 63).

  15. Donald Trump on Jeff Sessions’ priorities…..

    Sessions’ questionnaire consisted of five straightforward questions addressing immigration, trade, and crime in the United States.

    The first candidate to reply to Sessions’ questionnaire was GOP frontrunner Donald J. Trump. In his response, Trump declares, “After my inauguration, for the first time in decades, Americans will wake up in a country where their immigration laws are enforced.”

    Trump’s full, unedited answers to the Sessions’ test are below:

    Question 1: How would you vote (or how did you vote) on fast-track, and would you support or oppose advancing a final trade agreement which enters the United States into a new international commission with binding authority on future United States trade policy?

    ANSWER: I was steadfastly opposed to giving Obama his Fast-Track powers, and would have absolutely voted against it. This is one of the strongest distinctions between me and the other candidates in this race. The Congress, apparently under the magical spell of donors, gave massive new powers to a President who has repeatedly abused his authority. The other candidates in this race actually fought on Obama’s side to give him more power to abuse.

    As for creating a new international commission with authority over United States trade policy I am, again, steadfastly opposed. No foreign power should be given any control over the United States. Yet the other candidates who supported Fast Track allowed President Obama to do just that. It’s not too late to save our sovereignty: when I win the nomination, I will put America back in charge.

    Question 2: If the vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership were held today, and you had a vote to cast in Congress, would you vote for it or against it?

    ANSWER: I have strongly and consistently opposed the TPP. For decades, I have warned about how our terrible trade deals are killing the middle class. We are getting taken to the cleaners. My message on trade has been consistent from the beginning, and if politicians had listened to me years ago we would have saved millions of jobs, rebuilt our crumbling infrastructure, and saved trillions of dollars.

    My candidacy is the only way to stop this terrible deal that will send our manufacturing – including our auto manufacturing – overseas.

    TPP allows foreign countries to cheat by manipulating their currency, making it impossible for American companies to fairly compete. Yet other candidates in this race have voted in favor of the currency manipulation that is killing our middle class.

    What our incompetent leaders don’t understand is that the United States holds all the cards. Other countries need access to our markets. Yet we refuse to use that leverage, and we negotiate one terrible job-killing deal after another. We buy from other countries, but they refuse to buy from us.

    Under my Administration, we are bringing these jobs back to America. No more one-sided deals.

    Stopping the TPP is a matter of economic security and national security. When I am the nominee, I will stop Obamatrade in its tracks and bring millions of new voters into our party — putting new states in play in the general election.

    Question 3: Upon entering office, will you promptly and unconditionally terminate and rescind all of President Obama’s illegal executive amnesties – which provide work permits and entitlements to illegal aliens – including President Obama’s first executive amnesty in 2012, which remains in effect?

    ANSWER: I will immediately cancel both of President Obama’s illegal executive amnesties, and all other unconstitutional executive orders. After my inauguration, for the first time in decades, Americans will wake up in a country where their immigration laws are enforced.

    Question 4: A supermajority of GOP voters say immigration is too high. Every year, on autopilot, we let in another one million immigrants on green cards, 700,000 foreign guest workers, half a million foreign students, and 100,000 refugees and asylees. Historical precedent would be to reduce record-breaking immigration, rather than continuing to surge it beyond all historical precedent. Will you support legislation to reduce immigration numbers, and will you oppose legislation that would add to the number?

    ANSWER: I will support legislation to reduce the numbers, and will oppose legislation to increase the numbers. I have laid out a detailed plan to accomplish this goal on my website My suggested reforms include a requirement to give all open jobs to Americans first — instead of importing foreign replacements. This plan will appeal to voters from all walks of life by making it easier for workers in this country to find jobs and support their families. It will also help minority workers, youth, and previous immigrants who face intense job competition from waves of incoming foreign workers.

    I also proposed a temporary timeout on Muslim immigration until we can figure out what is going on and get our security situation under control.

    Question 5: Today, law enforcement are under increasing scrutiny and face excessive criticism from the political elites and the media, and are being targeted by criminals and terrorists. Meanwhile, since 2011, the federal prison population has declined by over 20,000, and is on track to be at its lowest level since 2005. Since 2009, the total state prison population has dropped every year, and is over 56,000 lower than it was then. These circumstances may have contributed to a nationwide spike in crime. The FBI recently reported an overall increase in violent crime and a 17 percent increase in homicides in the nation’s 50 largest cities. At the same time, the CDC reports that heroin and opioid drug overdoses have reached an all-time record high. Do you support efforts by President Obama and some Republicans in Congress to reduce penalties for drug-trafficking and further reduce the federal prison population, or do you think government should do more to keep drug traffickers off the streets?

    ANSWER: The way our cops are being treated is terrible, and our spineless politicians are not defending them. Some politicians are mute, others are throwing fuel on the fire.

    Policing saves lives, especially in our poorest communities. Policing makes schools safe, increases property values, encourages investment and job growth. We must stop attacks on police. I have been the only candidate with a clear message on this issue. As for drug traffickers, they are wreaking havoc on our communities and I oppose efforts to reduce penalties for drug traffickers: we must do more to keep traffickers out of our neighborhoods.

    I have been pro-law enforcement all of my life. The American people are crying out for safer communities, and I will bring this message of supporting law enforcement and safe communities to a general election.

  16. Lady, in response to #5, the cops are aiding and abetting criminals, they are called lawmakers.Oh I know that’s the way it’s always been done. But we are going to do things differently in this restaurant from now on.
    If the people want a 4 minute egg, give um a 3 minute egg, if the people want a 3 minute egg, give um a 2 minute egg, if the people want a 2 minute egg, give um a one minute egg, and if they want a one minute egg, give um a CHICKEN, and tell them work it out for themselves.

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