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Trump began by saying that “Obamacare is going to be repealed and replaced.”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.