Donald Trump's elevator pitch to the Republican electorate is that he's a very rich and very successful businessman who, therefore, knows how to make America great again. But the Big Business wing of the party could not be less like Trump. In fact, his brand of politics terrifies them.
Take the immigration platform that Trump released Sunday. While pro-business Republicans and candidates like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and even Ted Cruz say high-skilled immigration is the best way for America to attract the best and brightest, Trump says the opposite: that companies need to be forced to stop hiring foreign workers and start hiring Americans at home.
It's not that Trump is abandoning pro-business ideological principles to run for the Republican nomination. Trump's a businessman, but he's also always been a populist — indeed, populism is part of his business. The immigration policies that so horrify Trump's fellow Republican business leaders are just a reminder of who his core constituency really is.
Trump rejects the idea that America should attract the "best and brightest"
It is hard to overstate how popular high-skilled work visas are among most Republican elected officials.
Plenty of Republicans don't want to grant legal status to unauthorized immigrants working in the US. Many of them don't want to let in more legal immigrants, either. But even Republicans who don't want to expand legal immigration often agree that the US should be letting more of some types of people in — and less of other types. In particular, they say the US needs to be letting in more high-skilled, highly educated workers who can contribute to the American economy, and fewer people who get green cards simply because they have relatives in the US. If you've ever heard the talking point that the US immigration system should be "more like Canada," that's what it means.
This is a fundamentally pro-business position. Businesses want way more visas for high-skilled workers than they're currently getting. Not only did the federal government give out all 85,000 of the H-1B visas it had for 2016 during the first week that applications were open in April, but it got almost three times as many applications in that week as it had visas available for the whole year. The current system of high-skilled worker visas is very favorable to business — workers are tied to a particular employer, and the worker can't stay permanently in the US unless the employer is willing to sponsor him or her for a green card — and pro-business Republicans support its expansion.
Again, this is a position that even many Republicans who are hawkish on unauthorized immigration support. Ted Cruz, for example, wanted to radically increase the number of high-skilled work visas available in the 2013 Senate immigration reform bill.
Donald Trump rejects it completely. The H-1B program is the primary target of his reforms to legal immigration. He wants to raise the "prevailing wage" for H-1B workers, making it less appealing for employers to hire them instead of Americans, and make employers jump through more hoops to prove they've hired American workers first before being able to bring over highly educated, highly skilled workers from abroad.
Many of these ideas are likely due to the influence of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), a Trump immigration adviser and the most high-profile Republican critic of the H-1B program. But even though Sessions is the head of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee, his H-1B stance is an outlier within his party. Most Republicans support high-skilled work visas, because high-skilled work visas are good for business.
Trump's platform treats businesses with a Bernie Sanders level of distrust
Trump reserves his harshest words for immigrants themselves: They're committing crimes and undermining the rule of law; they're taking American jobs by flooding the market with low-wage labor. But to fix this, he wants to force employers to stop taking advantage of the immigration system to help their bottom line. This is, verbatim, his rationale for raising H-1B wages: It would "force companies to give these coveted entry-level jobs to the existing domestic pool of unemployed native and immigrant workers in the US, instead of flying in cheaper workers from overseas."
Donald Trump, businessman, prides himself on taking advantage of the American political and legal system to help his bottom line. He brags about donating to Democratic and Republican politicians to gain influence with them; he elevates the distinction between running a company that goes bankrupt and entering personal bankruptcy from a legal nicety to a point of pride. Donald Trump, politician, wants to restrain this type of behavior because he doesn't trust businessmen like Donald Trump. He thinks they need to be forced to put American interests ahead of their own bottom lines.
In other words, Donald Trump has about as little respect for American companies who want to hire more immigrant workers as Bernie Sanders does.
Sanders is, of course, the other high-profile presidential candidate who's skeptical of more work visas, and particularly of H-1B workers. When Sen. Sessions (and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois) wrote a letter earlier this year asking the government to investigate H-1B use, Sanders was one of the 10 senators who signed on. It's not just an amusing coincidence that Sanders and Trump agree on this issue — they agree for the same reasons. They both believe that business needs to be coerced by government into acting in the national interest instead of its own.
Trump's base has always been the people
It's not just immigration. As Vox's Ezra Klein pointed out this morning, Trump disagrees with Republican politicians (and agrees with Republican voters) that the government shouldn't cut federal entitlements. He believes in a single-payer health plan. He believes in trade protectionism and high tariffs.
All of these are surprising positions for a businessman to hold. But Donald Trump has never really represented Big Business in the same way that, say, Steve Forbes does. Even before Trump was a politician, he was a populist. His over-the-top aesthetic is designed to appeal not to fellow rich people but to people who like to imagine what they would do if they were rich. Trump's advisers admit this openly, as McKay Coppins wrote for BuzzFeed earlier this year:
On the day after the 2012 election, one of Trump’s advisers described for me the billionaire’s appeal to blue-collar voters: "If you have no education, and you work with your hands, you like him. It’s like, ‘Wow, if I was rich, that’s how I would live!’ The girls, the cars, the fancy suits. His ostentatiousness is appealing to them."
But as much as those blue-collar Americans might envy wealth, they feel much more ambivalent about business. They don't believe that people like Trump ought to make more money by hiring cheaper foreign workers instead of more expensive American workers.
At the end of the day, Trump's empire is only partly built on business itself. It's also built on the Trump personal brand (which Trump famously estimates is worth more than half of his self-proclaimed $10 billion net worth). And Trump's personal brand has always had more in common with Bernie Sanders than with the pro-business Republicans who are so terrified by his rise.