Donald Trump just spent a week showcasing all of the qualities that make him unfit for the presidency. He began by directing a bigoted slander at the family of a Muslim soldier killed in Iraq, then followed it up with a sexist defense of serial sexual predator Roger Ailes. He attacked multiple fire marshals at a rally for following the law, used his stature as the GOP standard-bearer to settle personal scores with three prominent Republicans facing primary challenges (Paul Ryan, John McCain, and Kelly Ayotte), and repeatedly lied about having seen Iranian video footage of the United States delivering cash to Tehran.
As his polling tanked, Republican officials grew increasingly panicked and angry; many of them organized a sheepish pressure campaign to get him to drop out of the race altogether. Some Republican National Committee members reportedly began contingency planning for a vacancy at the top of the ticket.
But by the end of the week, for precipitating reasons unknown to anyone outside of the campaign’s highest echelons, Trump—the candidate who fetishizes dominance and self-congratulation—capitulated. As if confronted by an imminent threat that his GOP leadership allies would abandon him, Trump endorsed Ryan, McCain, and Ayotte. He abandoned (for now) his vendetta against the Khan family and even tweeted an admission-of-sorts that the fabled Iran-cash-delivery video doesn’t exist.
But the wages of contrition went beyond half-hearted endorsements and disingenuous tweets. On Monday, Trump firmed up his fraying alliance with GOP leaders with a speech to the Detroit Economic Club recommitting himself to supply-side economic doctrine, but with new policy specifics that are vintage Paul Ryan.
Many of Trump’s conservative critics have fallen out with Ryan and other GOP leaders for sacrificing basic moral decency on the altar of supply-side economics—for tolerating Trump’s racism and authoritarianism as long as it seems like he might cut taxes on rich businesses and families. Many of Trump’s liberal critics have long argued that Trump’s popularity among white voters stems more from racial resentment than from his appeal to working-class economic concerns. Once again, Trump has vindicated both sets of critics.
In his speech, Trump called for a moratorium on financial regulations; for fully repealing the estate tax; and for making “the average cost of child care spending” tax deductible. The plutocratic tilt of the first two proposals is self-evident. The third is a bit too vague to evaluate, but even under a generous interpretation, the fact that Trump is proposing a child-care deduction rather than a tax credit means it would disproportionately benefit wealthy people who pay tax at high rates, and would offer no help at all to, say, white working-class families who pay no federal income tax.
By contrast, all of these ideas would stand to benefit Trump and his family—the kinds of people who have always stood to benefit most from Ryan-like economic policy. Trump and his two eldest children each have dependents; Trump stands to bequeath all of his children vast inheritances; and Trump and his family would likely also benefit from the kind of regulatory regime he and the GOP leadership is committed to creating.
Perhaps Trump really is a great negotiator. He’s revitalized his tenuous relationships with Republican leaders after the kind of week that has ended political careers—and all he had to do to patch things up was propose to give himself and his family several huge gifts. Ryan’s press secretary expressed particular satisfaction at the prospect of repealing the estate tax, which is also the most direct in-kind giveaway to the Trump children.
So Trump gets the last laugh. But in the process he’s helped to underline something damning about GOP elites. Faced with the threat of mass repudiation, Trump recognized the main thing holding the party together is Ryan’s willingness to tolerate the nominee’s racism and authoritarianism out of blind faith that Trump will sign the House GOP agenda into law. So Trump embraced much of that agenda.
In return, Republicans like Ryan will feel better about continuing to support him. Through that continued support, they might be able to limit the down-ballot consequences of Trump’s defeat—and, hey, if Trump manages to win, they might also get the huge tax cuts they’re bargaining for. But in their complacency, they will further validate the truly non-negotiable things about Trump’s candidacy: his various bigotries, his unusual viciousness, his promise of autocratic rule. And the fact that Trump won’t give those things up tells us everything we need to know about why white working-class voters support him so fervently.