Like the media in general, we are guilty of giving more time and space to commenting on Donald Trump than he deserves or we would wish. Nevertheless, we believe that the possibility of his election is such a grave threat that it cannot be ignored. So we will continue to try to puzzle out what he is up to and what it may amount to. Since our last blog, significant events have included Trump’s speech on economic policy, as well as some peculiar and offensive comments on the Second Amendment and ISIS.
The Trump Economic Speech
Our most fundamental objection to Trump is not based on this or that position or policy, disastrous as we believe many would be, but on matters of experience, character and temperament. Nevertheless, to the extent that he has taken coherent positions, they perhaps deserve at least brief comment.
In a speech to the Detroit Economic Club, Trump attempted to press a reset button to show us that he might be a serious candidate after all. To a limited extent, he succeeded. Ed Rogers, no Trump fan, gave him his due (and perhaps a bit more): “Monday was something different for Donald Trump. He was lucid and spoke in complete, thoughtful sentences.” The complete and thoughtful sentences were unquestionably the work of someone other than Trump, but why be picky? In any case, the very next day, Trump managed to step on his own lines with a comment that could be seen—and was by many—as an incitement to violence. The “new” Trump had not lasted 24 hours. And by the end of the week, eyes were rolling at Trump’s ludicrous attempt to brand President Obama and Hillary Clinton as “founders” of ISIS.
It was widely noted that in his Detroit speech, Trump had nodded to Republican orthodoxy by proposing the same tax brackets incorporated in the tax plan of Republicans in the House of Representatives. Trump, however, added bells and whistles of his own and gave no indication of spending cuts that might off set the loss of revenue. Altogether, there was little ground for disputing the consensus that Trump’s plan would provide far greater benefit to the wealthy than the middle class and that it would balloon the federal deficit.
As it happens, we are also skeptical of Hillary Clinton’s economic plan. While Trump appears to embrace the theory that virtually any tax cut will produce economic growth, Clinton seems to follow the liberal view that growth is impervious to tax increases. For our part, we are not persuaded by either. Reductions in tax revenue, we believe, should be balanced by off-setting cuts in spending, most notably reform of entitlements—a subject that is steadfastly avoided by both Trump and Clinton. Our view of tax increases is similar. We accept the view that taxation should be progressive and we see no reason why that principle should not extend beyond 39.6%, a rate to which we attach no mystical sanctity. On the other hand, we do not believe that taxing the wealthy is a bottomless sugar bowl available to finance a continually increasing agenda of social programs. As a political matter, any increase in tax revenue (by higher rates or elimination of “loopholes”) should probably be packaged with entitlement reform. Such an approach failed in the Boehner-Obama negotiations of 2011, but might work with different players.
In other areas, Trump sent messages that in some cases may have found resonance with other Republicans but which we believe lacked substance or were misguided.
It is a part of Republican gospel that government in general and the Obama administration in particular have imposed excessive regulations that have been a drain on the economy. That is an argument with which we have some sympathy. As an August 13 article in the New York Times reported:
The Obama administration in its first seven years finalized 560 major regulations — those classified by the Congressional Budget Office as having particularly significant economic or social impacts. That was nearly 50 percent more than the George W. Bush administration during the comparable period, according to data kept by the regulatory studies center at George Washington University.
Such regulations, the article continued, “imposed billions of dollars in new costs on businesses and consumers.”
The problem is that some regulations are useful or even essential, and cost-effective, and others are not. The challenge is to sort out which is which, but Trump’s approach is not particularly promising:
Upon taking office, I will issue a temporary moratorium on new agency regulations…. This will give our American companies the certainty they need to reinvest in our community, get cash off of the sidelines, start hiring for new jobs, and expanding businesses.
Whatever the merits of a moratorium, it would hardly bring certainty to businesses which could only speculate as to how long it would last and what would happen when it ended.
I will also immediately cancel all illegal and overreaching executive orders. Next, I will ask each and every federal agency to prepare a list of all of the regulations they impose on Americans which are not necessary, do not improve public safety, and which needlessly kill jobs. Those regulations will be eliminated.
Trump did not identify any particular “illegal and overreaching” executive orders and listeners were left to wonder as to which he had in mind. And in asking agencies, largely staffed by career civil servants, to identify which of their regulations “are not necessary, do not improve public safety, and which needlessly kill jobs,” we would caution that breath should not be held.
Trump’s speech did not even refer to “climate change” or to the Paris Accord, which he had previously said he would scrap. He did so implicitly, however, by simply appearing to call for total deregulation of every facet of the energy industry. Trump’s disdain for the Paris agreement or worries over climate change, is shared by many Congressional Republicans, but we believe it is mistaken (as do a majority of Republicans according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll last December).
With respect to trade policy, Trump departed from Republican orthodoxy by continuing to reject long-standing Republican support for free trade agreements and virtually declaring a trade war on China. He also promised to reject the TPP agreement governing trade with Asian nations (other than China) and to renegotiate NAFTA in some undefined respects. As indicated in previous blogs, we believe that Trump is flat out wrong with respect to trade in general and the TPP. (See, Blog No. 98 “Is Free Trade a Lame Duck or a Dead Duck?”) For her part, Clinton, a one-time promoter of TPP now turned opponent, is little better but would probably be less aggressive in the rejection of free trade policies and agreements.
Comments on Second Amendment, ISIS and Clinton
The day after his economic speech, Trump made his now-notorious comment about the Second Amendment and Hillary Clinton:
Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment.” [boos] “By the way, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks, although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”
The Trump campaign responded to the resulting uproar by assuring the public that Trump was referring only to the political power of the NRA and others. Uh-huh. To be sure, we do not believe that Trump intended a serious threat or to incite violence. On the other hand, we live in a world in which guns are far too freely available to the mentally deranged and we cannot know how such persons might react to Trump’s words.
While on the subject, we note that Hillary Clinton has stated that she does not intend to “abolish the Second Amendment” and we think it is unlikely that any justices she may appoint to the Supreme Court would overturn the decisions of the Court that recognized a constitutional right to individual gun ownership. Such justices, however, might well go further than some conservatives on the Court in upholding regulation of gun ownership and use as even Justice Scalia had contemplated: “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” We do not know what kind of gun regulation might come before the Court for review, it is likely that we would favor upholding it.
Turning to another area, Trump’s loose lips again caused him problems by the end of the week when he made an absurd reference to President Obama and Hillary Clinton as “founders” of ISIS. When this resulted in a predicable uproar, Trump’s attempted explanation was no better and perhaps worse. He first tweeted that his remark was “sarcastic” but later in the day, having had more time to think about it, he seemed to retract, at least in part, his retraction”
So I said, the founder of ISIS. Obviously I’m being sarcastic. Then, then — but not that sarcastic, to be honest with you.”
To the rest of the world, sarcastic means the use of words to convey the opposite of what they say. So whatever one thinks of Trump’s comment, sarcastic it was not. Hence, the exchange demonstrated not only Trump’s deplorable lack of taste, but a curious awkwardness with the mother tongue. The two combine to make inevitable the continual process of explaining, defending or “walking back” Trump’s comments on virtually every subject he addresses.
It is difficult to imagine such a person as the nominee of a major party, but here we are. On Sunday, the New York Times reported on widespread despair within the Trump campaign: “Advisers who once hoped a Pygmalion-like transformation would refashion a crudely effective political showman into a plausible American president now increasingly concede that Mr. Trump may be beyond coaching.
Why do those advisers remain? One is reminded of the old story of the circus worker who had the unenviable job walking behind the elephants and cleaning up after them with a shovel and wheelbarrow. When he complained at length to a friend about how miserable the work was, his friend asked why he didn’t just quit. “What,” the circus worker replied, “and give up show business?”