In his speech endorsing Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders appropriately dedicated the bulk of his time to talking about the movement he led and the virtues of the candidate he’s supporting. But he also talked some about Donald Trump, and in doing so he made a point that’s a bit obvious once you say it but that’s gone a bit missing in the young general election season: Trump has a lot in common with a typical Republican Party politician.
"If Donald Trump is elected," Sanders warned, making a point that would be equally true of Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush, "we will see no increase in the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour."
He continued on this theme, noting that the stakes in the election include "who will appoint new justices on the Supreme Court who will defend a woman’s right to choose, the rights of the LGBT community, workers’ rights, the needs of minorities and immigrants, and the government’s ability to protect the environment."
Trump, it turns out, "wants to abolish the Affordable Care Act" and also favors "hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks to the very wealthiest people in this country." He even "believes that climate change is a hoax," and "he wants to expand the use of fossil fuel."
In short: Donald Trump is a Republican.
The dog-bites-man story is important
Trump’s accession to the GOP nomination is a fascinating political story. And what’s fascinating about it is all the ways in which he’s weird compared with other Republican leaders. That starts with substantive disagreement on trade policy, the substitution of crude nationalism for neoconservative foreign policy, and a ratcheting up of essentially overt racism rather than an effort to reach out to people of color.
Perhaps the most alarming thing about Trump is his flirtations with open authoritarianism, and the most striking thing about him is his flagrant ignorance of virtually every policy topic.
That’s all the man-bites-dog stuff that makes for attention-grabbing headlines, and it makes many congressional Republicans squirm. But Sanders’s dog-bites-man story is also true. Trump’s successful bid for the GOP nomination involves a policy agenda that has considerable overlap with what we’ve seen generally from the 21st-century Republican Party:
- Large, regressive tax cuts
- Repeal of the Affordable Care Act, causing millions to lose health insurance
- Rollback of regulatory action designed to curb climate change
- Rollback of regulatory action designed to restrain risk-taking on Wall Street
- Making abortion illegal
- Resisting all efforts to regulate gun ownership, create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, or increase the minimum wage
This is a kind of boring story, journalistically speaking. "Republican nominee agrees with other Republicans about major public policy issues" is a pretty boring headline. But it’s still a legitimate — and legitimately important — story. This suite of issues on which Trump is an orthodox Republican is probably a bigger deal for the most voters than are Trump’s heterodoxies on trade and other issues.
The banality of Trump is a good theme for Sanders
Part of what made Sanders’ focus on this point so striking is that it isn’t the main theme of Hillary Clinton’s attacks on Trump. Her campaign is mostly zeroed in on making the case that Trump lacks the character and temperament for office, an argument aimed at winning Republicans over to her side or at least depressing their turnout and giving her a landslide win.
It is, broadly speaking, a smart strategy.
But it does carry the risk of perhaps lending more credence to Trump’s populist pitch than it deserves.
Trump won the Republican nomination by portraying himself as a different kind of candidate than past Republicans. He has repeatedly attacked American leaders as corrupt morons who have repeatedly sold out the interests of ordinary Americans. When he makes this argument, Trump isn’t just attacking Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton; he’s also implicitly criticizing Mitt Romney, John McCain, George Bush, and other members of the Republican establishment.
But if you look closely at Trump’s actual economic agenda, you’re only going to find one issue on which Trump really differs from predecessors like Romney and Bush: He wants to slap higher tariffs on Chinese imports, a break from the free trade orthodoxy of the modern Republican Party.
There certainly are some working-class Americans employed in directly China-competing industries who might benefit from this. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s a relatively small number of people. Most working-class Americans (like Americans of all classes) work in the service sector and can be found in restaurants and hospitals and big-box stores doing local work for a local customer base.
Many of these people probably agree with Trump about abortion or guns or stealing foreigners’ oil or whatever else, but in concrete terms he’s not offering them anything different from Mitt Romney. Multimillionaire CEOs, by contrast, are set to get a giant tax cut — one that’s actually much more gigantic than the ones Romney or John McCain or George W. Bush offered them. So if you didn’t like Mitt Romney’s agenda in 2012, then you probably shouldn’t be that excited about Donald Trump’s agenda either.
This is a good theme for Sanders, in particular, since he’s dedicated the vast majority of his career in Congress to trying to orient politics specifically around these themes of class conflict. Particularly because Sanders’s disagreements with Obama and Clinton on trade policy over the years are well-known, he’s very well-positioned to put this issue in appropriate context alongside the larger picture: that Clinton wants the rich to pay more so the government can do more, while Trump adheres to the pretty standard Republican agenda of starving the government of revenue to finance big tax cuts.