After perhaps the most damaging political week any presidential candidate has ever endured, Trump went to Detroit to deliver a hastily prepared economic speech intended to make peace with the Republican Party leadership.
As the terms of his surrender, Trump offered two key concessions: He adopted House Speaker Paul Ryan’s tax policy and the GOP’s gaffe-centered 2012 campaign strategy of misquoting or misrepresenting the Democratic candidate’s words.
These may seem like unrelated items, but they work in tandem. By advancing a supply-side tax reform that would allow him to bequeath his estate to his children tax-free, Trump has surrendered his claim to populism, and left himself vulnerable to criticism from Hillary Clinton, who proposes a more genuinely populist tax increase on rich people. To head off those attacks, Trump could have promised to tax the wealthy in other, comparable ways, or propose income support measures for the poor and working class. But those ideas offend GOP leaders like Ryan, so instead of seeking policy balance, he decided to lie about Hillary Clinton’s tax plan instead, and claim that she pledged to raise middle-class taxes.
This never happened, not even in a slip-of-the-tongue kind of way. Clinton specifically promises not to raise taxes on the middle class. But pretending otherwise is the only way Trump can neutralize the weaknesses his new tax policy creates. As a rhetorical gambit this closely resembles the way Republicans distorted and decontextualized President Obama’s words four years ago, to make him seem hostile to business owners, and blunt Democratic criticism of Mitt Romney’s regressive economic policies. It was a dishonest and ineffective strategy then, and it won’t work any better today. But it’s telling that reaching detente with GOP leaders required Trump to adopt the same tactics Republicans rode to defeat in 2012. Trump has savaged Romney and Ryan for losing that race. But faced with the threat of mass defections, Trump recognized the main thing holding the party together is Ryan’s willingness to tolerate racism and authoritarianism out of blind faith that Trump will sign the House GOP agenda into law. So Trump adopted much of that agenda.