I feel for anyone trying to write political satire these days. Reality, man. Add me to the list of former Trump skeptics forced to eat crow; I’ll have mine with a side of snark, garnished with whatever the opposite of relish might be. Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for President of the United States. This is really happening.
For me, this simplifies everything. I’m a liberal. I probably wasn’t going to vote for the Republican this year anyway. The Democrats are almost certainly going to run Hillary Clinton, an outstandingly well-credentialed candidate, and someone I’ve liked for years. Is she untrustworthy? According to Politifact, she is, in fact, the most honest candidate running. I am going to support, with time and money, the candidate I’ve favored all long. Easy-peasy.
But Republicans are in disarray. Trump’s going to be the nominee. And so Republican pols have to decide if they can support him, or whether they should find some poor schmuck to run as a third-party conservative alternative. Or, they might decide to blow this year off, and vote for Hillary. Amazing.
The stark choices top Republicans face came into clear focus the day after Cruz’s withdrawal, in the person of Paul Ryan. Right now, Ryan is, as Speaker of the House, the most powerful Republican around. Except that, normally, the presumptive nominee becomes the notional ‘head of the party.’ If the two men were in lock-step ideologically, this wouldn’t be a problem; they’d just work together. Hah.
Vox.com covered the resulting spat nicely. In an interview with Jake Tapper, Ryan said “I think conservatives want to know, does he share our values and our principles on limited government, the proper role of the executive, adherence to the Constitution?” That’s fair enough; Ryan does need to know the answer to those questions. The difficulty is that Trump’s been running against the Republican agenda the whole time.
Let’s unpack that a little. That core–a belief in limited government and adherence to the Constitution–seems like something that would be easy enough for Trump to agree to, because it doesn’t mean anything. (Or, at least, it means different things to different conservatives). All Republicans call themselves conservatives, and say they believe in limited government and Constitutional principles. The problem is, conducting your affairs based on empty, meaningless rhetoric is essentially what Trump seems to mean by ‘political correctness.’ It’s the main thing his entire campaign has been about opposing. Trump’s attacks on political correctness are sometimes portrayed on the left as simply him declaring a license to insult people. But it’s more than that. Ask any Trump fan, and they’ll say ‘he tells it like it is.’ That’s what they like about him.
Let’s get specific, show how this works in relation to a single issue; the development of a single aircraft: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Building that jet is part of the Republican legislative agenda. It’s something Paul Ryan supports. Trump opposes it.
The F-35 is a little faster than the F-15 or A-10, which it would supplant, and it has a little bigger gun. Plus, it would keep defense contractors happy. It’s very expensive–building and deploying it will cost over $1.5 trillion dollars. Seems to me that spending huge amounts of money on an aircraft that’s not needed expands the size and reach of government. It’s difficult for me to see how building a very expensive new plane just because it’s a little cooler than the perfectly adequate planes we already deploy is consistent with principles of ‘limited government.’ But, Paul Ryan’s version of conservativism is sufficiently flexible to allow him to support that plane, and to not worry overmuch about how it’s going to be paid for.
But Trump doesn’t care. It’s expensive and we don’t need it. Get rid of it.
The spat continues, and on some issues, Ryan seems right, and Trump wrong. Paul Ryan’s version of conservatism also includes “a message that would appeal to all Americans in every walk of life, every background. . . .” It’s not hard to decode that: he’s asking Trump to tone down the anti-immigrant demagoguery. This isn’t just political calculation. I mean, sure, Republicans know they have to broaden their appeal to minority voters. Trump’s anti-Hispanic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Chinese nastiness is genuinely troubling to us all. Ryan’s right on that point. But I don’t think it’s likely that Trump’s going to back away from any of that. His line about how Mexico is going to pay for ‘that wall,’ (the one he wants to build on the Mexican border) is the biggest hit of his stump speech. From Trump’s perspective, Ryan is asking him, Donald Trump, to give in to political correctness. Ain’t gonna happen.
The differences between Ryan and Trump are more than stylistic, in other words. They’re substantive. Paul Ryan is an ideological conservative. Conservatism is core, even when it doesn’t make sense. As an outsider, I think conservatism’s weird. I understand conservatism as a tendency, but not as a movement. In other words, saying ‘I want to carefully vet any piece of legislation, to make sure it’s fully funded’ makes sense to me. Saying ‘in general, I’d rather not raise taxes, though of course there are times you have to’ makes sense. To say ‘as a matter of constitutional principle, the government shouldn’t do much, should never raise taxes, and above all, shouldn’t do anything that might make the lives of citizens better, because it would expand government and that’s always bad’ seems very weird to me. (I also don’t mean to misrepresent conservatism. Please let me know if I just did.)
Conservatives don’t think Trump is a conservative. They don’t count his paleo-conservative nativism as, you know, actually conservative. They believe that conservatism is a set of principles, the first of which is a small, limited government. Trump isn’t that kind of conservative. His policy proposals tend to be poorly thought-through, and he changes his mind every ten minutes, while ferociously denying he’s doing anything of the kind (has there ever been a candidate for high office this thin-skinned?). But there doesn’t seem to be much ideology behind them.
But if what drives him isn’t ideology, what is it? It’s essentially his life-experience as a businessman. He sees foreign policy as essentially deal-making. He can’t see how destabilizing his proposals are, because in the business world, you can always renegotiate any deal. It’s not that Trump opposes multi-national trade agreements out of principle, the way Bernie Sanders seems to. Nor does he embrace them the way Paul Ryan might; free trade as an extension of conservatism. No, Trump looks at any trade deal in isolation; did we get a good deal here? Does it massively favor the United States? If not, we’ll renegotiate. Don’t worry, Europe. It’ll be great. It’ll be huge.
And so, this week, as part of his spat with Ryan, Trump actually said something remarkable, not that anyone noticed. He changed his mind about supporting a big tax cut. Said ‘I’m not necessarily a big fan of that.’
Tax cuts for the top 1% is as close to Republican orthodoxy as any issue could be. Every Republican candidate in this race favored tax cuts. When Republicans talk about a ‘pro-growth economic program,’ that’s what they mean; tax cuts, and trickle-down economics. Kasich favored a tax cut. So did Jeb!, so did Rubio, so did Cruz. Tax cuts transfer money from the public sector (bad!) to the private sector (good!). Tax cuts automatically make government smaller (yay!). There’s not a single issue that unites conservatives like tax cuts. Trump proposed one too–the biggest tax cut of any of them. (The fact that tax cuts don’t trickle-down, that they’re fiscally ruinous, and fraudulent and terrible public policy, we’re not supposed to notice. Hillary Clinton, by the way, is the one fiscally responsible candidate in this race).
Now, having just won the nomination, Trump is backing off from them. He’s saying “I’m not necessarily a big fan” of tax cuts. And nobody noticed. Really, it blows my mind how little attention mainstream media pays to policy.
If Trump actually runs on this issue? If he actually make opposing tax cuts a centerpiece of his campaign? I think it’s the one thing he might do that gives him a chance against Hillary Clinton. And it destroys the Republican party. Wow, do we live in wacky times.