Donald Trump’s big economic speech wasn’t particularly revealing as to the candidate’s core economic philosophy, but it clarified the precarious place his campaign has come to rest. Trump has merged the weaknesses of an unqualified, outsider candidacy with the unpopular, plutocratic tilt of the conservative billionaire class’s policy preferences. It’s a worst-of-both-worlds campaign.
It didn’t have to be this way. The Trump campaign’s original pitch made sense. Trump was a confident, celebrated businessman. His wealth and celebrity protected him from the corruptions of our campaign finance system. His life outside Washington freed him from the stultified ideology of the Beltway’s stagnant elites.
He would bring an outsider’s eye, an executive’s efficiency, and a populist’s touch to crafting a policy agenda that worked for the working man — the kind of policy agenda Republicans should have been pushing all along but were too addicted to corporate cash to dare consider.
And for a while, this looked to be the campaign Trump was running. He declared he would raise taxes on "the very wealthy," that his plan would cost him "a fortune." He said his health plan was "going to take care of everybody," and promised, even though it was "an un-Republican thing to say," that "the government’s gonna pay for it." He swore he wouldn’t cut Social Security and Medicare.
The problem was that Trump was lying.
Trump’s tax plan is basically Paul Ryan’s tax plan
We have now seen two version of Trump’s tax plan. Both have been massive, regressive giveaways to the rich — including, as far as we can tell, to Trump himself (because he won’t release his tax returns, it’s hard to say exactly how his plans would affect his finances).
The new version of Trump’s plan — which, for reasons he hasn’t really explained, appears to supersede the old version of his plan — offers vast benefits to the wealthiest and almost nothing for the truly poor. Trump massively cuts taxes on the rich, massively cuts taxes on corporations, and completely eliminates estate taxes for the very wealthiest families. Whatever this is, it sure as hell isn’t populism.
If you want to get into the weeds, Vox's Dylan Matthews runs through the gory details here, but if you just want the gist, the tell in Trump’s speech was this sentence: "We will work with House Republicans on this plan, using the same brackets they have proposed: 12, 25, and 33 percent."
What Trump has done is crib the basic structure of the House GOP’s tax plan, which is one of the single most unpopular policy documents that exists in American politics. I don’t quite know what Democrats would do if they couldn’t run against the GOP’s perma-proposal to add trillions to the deficit to cut taxes on the rich, and it looks like I’m not going to find out: Trump has put that plan at the center of his policy agenda.
By the way, if you want to understand why Paul Ryan has held to his endorsement of Trump, despite the many humiliations and embarrassments Trump has visited on Ryan, this is the answer: Trump is willing to sign some version of Ryan’s budget into law, and Hillary Clinton isn’t.
Trump’s plan to increase the number of uninsured Americans
It’s not just taxes where Trump betrays his heterodox rhetoric to embrace unpopular, orthodox conservative policy.
Trump's health care plan follows the same grooves. Far from fulfilling his promise that he was "going to take care of everybody" at government expense, his plan repeals Obamacare. It allows insurers to sell plans across state lines — a bad idea that mainly redistributes money from the sick to the healthy. It block-grants Medicaid, a way of cutting Medicaid under the guise of increasing state flexibility. It encourages the use of health savings accounts. It makes insurance premiums deductible — which does nothing for poorer taxpayers who don't have an income tax liability in the first place.
Put it all together, and Trump’s plan does the opposite of what he promised: Rather than diverging from Republican orthodoxy in the direction of covering more people, it diverges in the direction of covering fewer people.
As Sarah Kliff notes, Trump's reliance on tax deductions makes his plan less progressive than most Republican reform plans, which rely on tax credits that are available to people even if they don't have any income tax liability. His plan would also allow insurers to discriminate based on preexisting conditions. If you repealed Obamacare and replaced it with this plan, you'd see millions more people fall into the ranks of the uninsured.
"There’s something of a mismatch between Trump’s talking points and the specific policies he’s proposed so far," Larry Levitt, vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told me. "His public comments suggest that there would be a safety net to take care of people who get sick and can’t afford health care on their own. His policy proposals, at least at this point, don’t accomplish that."
Trump is a weak, unqualified messenger for unpopular, conventional policy ideas
Trump does have his deviations from Republican orthodoxy — namely on trade and, to some degree, on immigration (though for all the sound and fury, Trump’s practical immigration policy puts him in the mainstream of House conservatives).
But his points of agreement are more numerous — and, for the middle class, more consequential — than his points of disagreement. In addition to his tax and health care plans, a mere eight years after the last financial crisis, Trump is promising "a temporary moratorium on new agency regulations." So if you thought part of the new populism was a fury at Wall Street’s ability to outrun regulators and crash the global economy, well, Trump disagrees.
Meanwhile, his polls show that he’s a singularly poor messenger for any kind of policy plan, because he’s managed to position himself as the kind of outsider who Americans think can’t understand the political system, rather than the kind of outsider who can fix it.
According to a new Washington Post/ABC News poll, a majority of voters simply don’t think Trump is qualified to serve as president. And it’s not just qualifications — they don’t think he has the personality or temperament to serve as president (67 to 31 percent), they don’t think he has a solid understanding of world affairs (64 to 33 percent), and they don’t think he’s honest and trustworthy (62 to 34 percent).
Trump’s campaign was supposed to be an answer to the question, "Could Republicans find a candidate untainted by the political system and free from the the most unpopular points of conservative orthodoxy?" Instead, it’s been an answer to the question, "Could Republicans find a candidate who reminds voters what they like about professional, vetted politicians but who nevertheless shackles himself to the least popular parts of the conservative policy agenda?"
Well, they succeeded. And so what they’ve gotten in Trump is a worst-of-all-worlds candidate: He lacks the credentials, skills, relationships, and credibility of an accomplished politician, but he’s running atop a surprisingly conventional, and deeply unpopular, policy agenda.