The Donald

The Iowa caucuses are tonight, and as I continue my project, looking at campaign websites to get a sense of where the candidates stand on the issues, I thought perhaps today would be a good time to take a look at the Republican front-runner. I want to treat him fairly, and I want to accurately reflect his views. I want to be clear; I’m primarily interested in issues, in policy proposals. This is trickier with Donald Trump than with other candidates running. I worried, going in, that he doesn’t really think very hard about issues. I’m not sure how committed he is to his own policy positions. But reading his website, I’m more convinced that he is actually kind of thoughtful, and sincere. He doesn’t care about a whole lot of issues–in fact, very few. But on those issues, his proposals are detailed and specific. Also, at times, crazy. But not always.

Trump’s website is pretty minimalist. There’s a ‘Positions’ section, which only deals with five issues–U.S.-China trade reform, VA reforms, Tax Reform, the Second Amendment, and Immigration Reform. Those are also about the only issues he talks about on the stump. I suspect that these are just about the only issues he cares about enough to have thought about much.

I went first to the section on US-China trade. Here’s the gist of it; he also expands on each of these points:

1.Bring China to the bargaining table by immediately declaring it a currency manipulator.

2. Protect American ingenuity and investment by forcing China to uphold intellectual property laws and stop their unfair and unlawful practice of forcing U.S. companies to share proprietary technology with Chinese competitors as a condition of entry to China’s market.

3. Reclaim millions of American jobs and reviving American manufacturing by putting an end to China’s illegal export subsidies and lax labor and environmental standards. No more sweatshops or pollution havens stealing jobs from American workers.

4. Strengthen our negotiating position by lowering our corporate tax rate to keep American companies and jobs here at home, attacking our debt and deficit so China cannot use financial blackmail against us, and bolstering the U.S. military presence in the East and South China Seas to discourage Chinese adventurism.

In other words, Donald Trump, if elected President, will immediately begin a trade war with China. And it’s not entirely clear that he’s not open to the possibility of a trade war escalating to an actual, shooting war. It rather sounds like he’d be okay with that.

Okay, let’s take his points one at a time. Does China engage in currency manipulation? Yes. Do we Americans also manipulate the value of our currency? Yes, through a practice called quantitative easing. (Here’s a link that explains what that is.) Does the Chinese government manipulate interest rates? Yes, and so does the U.S. government, as does the E.U., as does Japan.

If Trump, as President, officially called China on their currency manipulations, Congress would likely impose tariffs on a variety of Chinese goods coming into our country. China would respond with tariffs of their own. The result really would be a trade war. This would be bad. Trade suffers in trade wars. Factories shut down; workers lose pay checks. This is, in short, a terrible idea.

What’s weird about this section is the constant emphasis on ‘getting a better deal.’ He thinks that trade negotiators have made deals with China that are–this is a big word for Trump–weak. He wants us to assert US strength, and US power, and force China to cut deals that favor American interests over Chinese interests. Why on earth would China agree to that? Trump’s big best-selling business book is The Art of the Deal. I haven’t read it; my taste for research only goes so far. But surely he has to have noticed that, in any deal, there has to be something for both parties. You appeal to my self-interest, and I appeal to yours. But he seems to think that the Chinese government can simply be bullied into trade deals in which there’s nothing for them. Why would they? I mean, if Trump wants to open trade negotiations with China, fine. But they’re not going to give away the store.

Nor is Mexico going to pay for Mr. Trump’s giant wall on our southern border. That’s just childish posturing. In fact, illegal immigration isn’t actually much of a problem. Undocumented workers living in the US are more likely to start businesses than most Americans, and have much lower crime rates. Trump’s stance on immigration is nothing new in American politics, of course–remember when Chinese immigrants were the big threats, routinely discriminated against in a hundred different ways. Remember when it was the Irish? The kind of xenophobic posturing on Trump’s immigration section demeans Trump’s entire campaign.

The section on Taxes is more interesting. Of course, it includes tax simplification and tax cuts. He is running as a Republican. He proposes just four tax brackets, 0%, 10%, 20% and 25%, along with the elimination of estate taxes and cuts in corporate taxes. Families earning less than $50,000 would pay no federal income tax at all.

For people in that income bracket, though, federal income taxes are already a negligible part of their tax burden, and if they qualify for Earned Income Credit, they actually make money back. In fact, the EITC is a lifesaver for a lot of low-income families–allowing them to pay off big medical bills, or get a more functioning car. Trump makes no mention of the EITC. The biggest tax burden for those families are payroll taxes, which Trump’s plan never mentions. He has absolutely nothing in his plan to pay for such entitlements as Social Security or Medicare, two of the biggest budget busters.

He does, however, get quite specific about matters he knows about; the various loopholes available for the super-rich.

Reducing or eliminating deductions and loopholes available to the very rich, starting by steepening the curve of the Personal Exemption Phaseout and the Pease Limitation on itemized deductions. The Trump plan also phases out the tax exemption on life insurance interest for high-income earners, ends the current tax treatment of carried interest for speculative partnerships that do not grow businesses or create jobs and are not risking their own capital, and reduces or eliminates other loopholes for the very rich and special interests.

I have never in my life heard of the Pease Limitation. I don’t make enough money, and my guess is, neither do you, Gentle Reader. But it eliminates some tax deductions for rich guys. Trump wants to increase it, which means increasing the tax burden, for, well, guys like him. And this is where Trump gets interesting. He’s the only Republican running for President who actually, seriously proposes raising taxes on rich people.

Tax cuts for the wealthy are part of the economic proposals for every other Republican running. It was just assumed that the Republican rank-and-file voters supported those tax cuts as well.

But Donald Trump is the Republican front-runner, and the favored candidate by lower-middle-class Republican voters. And that seems weird to me, not that lower-middle-class voters are angry, because they have every right to be angry, having been screwed over by the political establishment in both parties for years. No, what seems strange is that these voters have embraced a billionaire. Donald Trump has positioned himself as the guy looking out for them. And with cause.

Of course, in part, Trump’s popularity is because he does such a skillful job of articulating a sense of resentment among voters, against all those people who are destroying their jobs and lifestyles. China! Mexico! Mexicans; sneaking across the border and stealing American jobs! That kind of knee-jerk xenophobia is part of what makes Trump’s popularity so scary and so uncomfortable.

But he’s a businessman who is not just about businessmen; a billionaire that is not just about billionaires. He is seriously talking about increasing the tax burden of the super-rich. He’s the only Republican calling for something that heterodox. And voters love it. Love it.

I want to be clear; I do not want Donald Trump to become President of the United States. I do not support him. He frightens me. But I do, kind of, get it. And what we really need is a candidate that can articulate policies that really, genuinely do something to help the lower-middle class and middle class in this country.

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