Donald Trump had an opportunity to be a different kind of Republican. Trump openly disdained traditional conservative elites — making a populist case that resonated with working-class white voters. He won the Republican nomination with hardly any support from conservative intellectuals.
But now, he appears to have decided that their ideas aren’t so bad after all.
"All Hillary Clinton has to offer is more of the same: more taxes, more regulations, more bureaucrats, more restrictions on American energy and American production," Trump said Monday in an economic speech delivered in Detroit. Of course, this critique goes both ways: With the important exception of trade, Trump’s economic agenda is little different from the one Mitt Romney ran on in 2012.
Trump’s speech contained a number of ideas that have become staples of conservative thinking, including repealing the estate tax or reducing the number of regulations in the federal register. The working-class voters who seem most attracted to Trump don’t particularly benefit from many of these ideas.
Of course Trump was still Trump on one key issue: He reiterated his long-standing opposition to trade deals — a stance that puts him at odds with most Republican elected officials.
Trump’s plan includes "strong protections against currency manipulation, tariffs against any countries that cheat by unfairly subsidizing their goods, and a renegotiation of NAFTA," he said on Monday. "If we don’t get a better deal, we will walk away."
And he proposed to make child care costs tax-deductible, something that has not previously been a priority for Republican policymakers.
But in most other respects, Trump’s economic agenda has been utterly conventional. Trump has proposed big income tax cuts whose benefits would flow primarily to the wealthy. He wants to eliminate the estate tax. And he argues that the economy is being strangled by excessive regulation.
This is partly because Donald Trump has never been that interested in the details of policy. With few policy ideas of his own, he has adopted the standard-issue Republican agenda by default. In this respect, Trump’s agenda isn’t so different from that of conservative populists that have come before him.
Pro-family tax cuts have long been at the center of conservative populist thinking
The Reagan agenda of tax cuts and deregulation has dominated GOP economic thinking for a generation. But there have long been heterodox conservative thinkers that have tried to push the party in a different direction.
In 1992, for example, Pat Buchanan challenged George H.W. Bush for the Republican nomination. His campaign themes sounded a lot like the themes of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. Like Trump, Buchanan was skeptical of immigration, trade deals, and elite institutions generally. And also like Trump, Buchanan’s campaign speeches were not that focused on economics.
In his speech at the 1992 Republican convention, Buchanan attacked then-candidate Bill Clinton for supporting "abortion on demand," "homosexual rights," and "radical feminism." He criticized Clinton for dodging the draft. And he argued that it was important to save the jobs of ordinary Americans, but — again aside from rejecting trade deals — he didn’t offer any specific proposals for how to do that.
A decade later, conservative writers Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam tried to flesh out a "Sam’s Club Republican" agenda that could serve as an alternative to the small-government ideology of mainstream conservative thinking. But most of their ideas — like Trump’s child care tax break — focused on using the tax code to promote work and family.
The heir to this kind of thinking in today’s politics is probably Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), whose economic agenda focuses on giving bigger tax breaks to families with children. He would also tweak labor laws to help working parents get flexible schedules.
So the two relatively unorthodox ideas in Trump’s plan — rejecting trade deals and providing tax breaks for child care expenses — put Trump firmly in the traditional of populist conservative thinkers and politicians. Yet in practice, these ideas represent only a small departure from mainstream conservatism. Trump, like Buchanan, Lee, and other populist conservatives, believes in tax cuts, aggressive exploitation of energy resources, and cutting bureaucracy and red tape. Ultimately, their populist conservatism isn’t all that different from the more mainstream variety.