Donald Trump
Photograph by Daniel Acker — Bloomberg via Getty Images
By Chris Matthews
August 11, 2015

Even after what some pundits are calling a poor debate performance last Thursday, real estate mogul Donald Trump continues to lead polls in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

Given the fact that Trump used to be a Democrat, has a history of palling around with big name Democrats that the Republican base despises, and has in the past promoted ideas like massive wealth taxes on the rich to pay down the debt and a single payer health-care system, it might seem strange that his support among Republican primary voters has been so resilient.

It should be obvious at this point, then, that Trump is appealing to a part of the American electorate that mainstream candidates for office have been ignoring. An analysis of the demographic breakdown of the 2012 election by Sean Trende showed that one of the most salient differences between the electorate in the 2008 and 2012 elections was the disappearance of more that 6 million from the voting ranks. The voters who stayed home were predominantly white, low-income citizens from the Northeast and Midwest. According to Trende:

For those with long memories, this stands out as the heart of the “Perot coalition.” That coalition was strongest with secular, blue-collar, often rural voters who were turned off by Bill Clinton’s perceived liberalism and George H.W. Bush’s elitism.

Now, Trump hasn’t been very specific at all when it comes to what economic policies he would promote if he were elected President. But he has spoken quite a bit about limiting illegal immigration and the idea that America’s trade partners—like Mexico, Japan and China—are “killing us” in international trade.

 

Though one can quibble over the details, it is true that for 30 years now, the United States has maintained a very large trade deficit that has surely contributed to the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs. At the same time, while mainstream economics tends to see immigration as a net positive for the economy, there’s plenty of evidence that immigration can suppress the wages of low-income workers, the very same blue collar, white workers that made up the “Perot coalition,” and the same ones that the Republican Party has ignored over the past generation in its zeal for free trade agreements and tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the wealthy.

Just looking at these two issues, there are plenty of policy proposals that Trump could put forward if he wants to double down on his claim that he is talking up the issues that other candidates are afraid to touch. Putting forward solid policy proposals could help the candidate avoid the criticism that he is all style and no substance. Here’s what the Trump campaign should be touting.

A repeal of NAFTA: Economists from both ends of the political spectrum tend to support free trade agreements, and NAFTA is no different. But the American public doesn’t feel the same way. While it’s likely that a lot of the deindustrialization that America is suffering from would have occurred even if there hadn’t been bipartisan courtship of free trade agreements, the polls clearly show that attacking NAFTA would be a political winner.

The dethroning of King Dollar: There is growing consensus in the economic community that America is suffering, rather than benefitting, from the dollar’s status as the global reserve currency. Because central banks and other actors must hoard dollars to engage in global trade, it has artificially increased the value of the dollar and made U.S. exporters less competitive. Trump could publicize this fact and argue that the U.S. should lead the international community in adopting another global monetary order. At the very least, Trump could add some specificity to his argument that countries like Japan are taking us to the cleaners in international trade by raising the issue of that country’s massive purchases of dollars in recent years, a move that has helped exacerbate the U.S.’s trade deficit.

Really building a big wall (and a bunch of other stuff): Trump has gotten the most attention from his incendiary comments about immigration, and the hard line he has taken surely is the source of much of his support. To lock in this support, Trump could come out with a formal proposal for building a wall along the border with Mexico. Sure, it might not actually do much to prevent illegal immigration, and it would cost tens of billions of dollars. But compared to the overall infrastructure needs of the U.S., $30 billion isn’t actually that much money. If an extensive border fence is able to bring about conservative support for more infrastructure investment at a time when the American government can borrow at historically low rates, it could be a worthwhile trade-off.

A wealth tax: Back in 1999, Trump advocated for a massive, one-time wealth tax as a means to pay down the national debt. New taxes aren’t often cheered in Republican primaries, but if this tax were aimed at the very wealthy and used to fund things conservatives want (like a big wall, a military build-up, or to pay down debt), it would be interesting to see whether the cross-section of voters who currently support Trump would remain on board.

It’s clear that Donald Trump is speaking to a group of Americans who feel their needs aren’t being addressed by either major party. Given that Trump has said he is prepared to run as an independent if necessary, these economic proposals could serve as a strategy for firming up his support among Republicans or as the outline for a third-party run.

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