Up until the release of his tax reform plan on Monday, Donald Trump was running a presidential campaign that was far and away the most substantively interesting and important development of the 2016 election. Far from a sideshow, his campaign was actually driving at the core blockage in American politics: the Republican Party's ironclad demand for lower taxes on the highest-income Americans. This is not the only uncompromising stand in American politics, but it is a curious one, since it is extremely unpopular with the broad electorate — something on which a huge share of rank-and-file Republican voters disagree with the party.
Before this week, Trump said the wealthy should pay more in taxes, promised to protect Social Security, and, most important, feuded with the Club for Growth — the enforcement arm of the donor class's tax orthodoxy — and seemed to be prospering for having done so. None of that meant Trump would have been a good nominee or a good president, but it did mean his campaign was opening up the system and potentially laying the groundwork for more creative thinking from Republican politicians in the future.
Then on Monday, he threw all that away. He proposed a huge regressive tax cut that differs in detail from what other GOP contenders are offering but is perfectly compatible with the party orthodoxy.
Donald Trump sold out
The clearest indication that Trump utterly failed to deliver the breath of fresh air the world was waiting for comes from the Club for Growth's own Stephen Moore, who told journalist Jim Tankersley that he was pleased as punch with Trump's ideas.
"Who would have known Donald Trump was a supply sider?" Steve Moore tells me. "It’s a solid plan. It’s very pro-growth. It's Reaganesque."— Jim Tankersley (@jimtankersley) September 28, 2015
It's not entirely clear why Trump took this particular turn. Even the GOP rank and file doesn't share the donor class's obsession with cutting taxes on the rich, and Trump is a very rich man who isn't relying on donors to fuel his campaign.
One possibility, however, is that Trump has started to believe he might actually win this thing and is deliberately taking steps to weaken elite hostility to his candidacy.
The reality, however, is that Trump has already shown himself to be far too much of a wild card for any halfway sane party regular to want to see him as president. Instead, he's simply thrown away the chance to do something distinctive without really doing anything to gain establishment support.
The GOP could use more creativity
The GOP is the party of lower taxes and smaller government, and nobody should expect that to change. But the status quo inside the Republican Party has the narrow interests of a rather small faction holding the rest of the party hostage. Given Democrats' insistence on higher taxes on the rich as the sine qua non of any approach to the federal budget, there is plenty of space for Republicans to position themselves to the right of their opponents on this topic without saddling themselves with such an unpopular agenda.
A Republican could, for example, propose to cut taxes on the rich and the middle class by the same amount, rather than pairing a broad tax cut with a cut in the rates paid by only the richest people.
Or a Republican could propose to leave taxes on the highest-income Americans just where they are — a position that would still be more conservative than Democrats' demands for higher rates.
A Republican Party that was more moderate on taxes would stand a better chance of winning a presidential election and putting itself in a position to deliver on foreign policy, immigration, regulation, abortion, and other subjects of interest to many conservatives.
Trump seemed, briefly, like a figure who was going to blaze a trail that other more conventional politicians could eventually follow — moderating the party's stance on the need to serve the 1 percent in order to advance broader goals.
Instead, he has ended up merely illustrating how narrow the bounds of Republican thinking are. As currently positioned, he's an idiosyncratic figure, but his basic ideological position of pairing hardline anti-immigration politics with giant tax cuts for the rich is no different from where the average House Republican has been sitting for years. A once interesting candidate, Trump is now really just the clown his critics have been saying he is.