First off, a confession. I don’t think either Donald Trump (or Senator Bernie Sanders) can win their parties’ respective presidential nominations. I don’t even think they can come close. But both candidates can win in this important sense: They can change this latest version of the quadrennial national debate occasioned by presidential elections even more dramatically than they have already done. And they could even foster real progress toward the realignment that American politics could really use.
The trouble is, both candidates would need to modify some key planks in their platforms, and even though such fixes make eminent political and logical sense, I see few signs that either man will meet the challenge. And somewhat surprisingly, I sense that Sanders would need to overcome bigger obstacles than Trump. I’ll discuss The Donald today and the Vermont Senator very soon.
Trump, who began surging in Republican presidential polls as soon as he declared his candidacy, has stayed near the top precisely by pounding two issues bound to prompt vitriol from the national press corps and chattering classes even if he had zero personal quirks: job- and wage-killing trade and immigration policies. He’ll never become a media darling (though if he remains a major factor in the race, watch much of the always bandwagoning press corps start to identify his supposedly hidden virtues). But he could well expand his base and his acceptability ratings by picking his targets more intelligently and more accurately.
In particular, this means that rather than focusing all of his blame for trade and immigration policy failures on foreign governments (or on allegedly clueless American negotiators), he should target the main problem – domestic corporate lobbies that profit hugely from the cheap labor flood provided by so-called free trade and amnesty-friendly immigration approaches.
Are foreign governments blameless? Nope. Certainly China, Japan, and indeed most other major foreign economies have long pursued predatory trade strategies at the expense of America’s workers, its entire productive economy, and global financial stability. And Mexico has undoubtedly long been enabling emigration to the United States as a safety salve that’s kept it floating just above failed-state status.
But when it comes to the overwhelmingly third world-oriented thrust of American trade diplomacy since the North American Free Trade Agreement’s (NAFTA) pursuit began in the late 1980s, the leading culprits by far have been U.S. multinational corporations. These firms have become enamored with the idea of boosting profits by producing in very low-cost, virtually unregulated developing countries and selling much of that output in the very high price American market. And they know that trade deals are key to the resulting offshoring by virtually guaranteeing that the U.S. market will stay open to their foreign output even if the economy grows too weak to absorb them painlessly.
The immigration story is more complicated, since much of the Open Borders pressure has come from an alliance of Democratic Party politicians seeking huge new constituencies for their Big Government programs and labor unions seeking huge new pools of dues-paying recruits. But certainly while stumping for Republican primary votes, the corporate cheap labor lobby should be targeted for many of his immigration slings and arrows. And if Trump somehow makes it into the general election, he could attract lots of independents and even some of organized labor’s socially and culturally conservative, and economically stressed, rank and file with this genuinely populist message.
In fact, Trump could throw his media and chattering class detractor for a total loop – and excite big chunks of the electorate across the spectrum even more – by turning his very wealth into a political asset. Like the Roosevelts before him, he could conspicuously turn on his fellow one percenters and rail against “economic royalists” and “malefactors of great wealth.”
And he could (legitimately) maintain conservative/free market bona fides by noting that urging strengthening the productive sectors of the American economy and therefore the earnings power of the nation’s workers amounts to a growth recipe that doesn’t require either (a) more government spending; or (b) tax cuts that simply aren’t affordable given still-towering budget deficits and a national debt that will grow further once further demographic changes trigger more entitlement spending.
So what’s the obstacle? I’m betting that the main one will be Trump’s own personality. Like so many other tycoons, he clearly attributes nearly all of his business success to his personal genius. And like many tycoons who enter politics, he no doubt believes that those matchless business skills easily translate into politics and policy. One likely result: He won’t be eager to take or even solicit advice from others.
Surely more important for the longer run, for related reasons, I’m confident that, once he’s defeated, Trump will display no interest in the hard, unglamorous, day-to-day work of turning his ideas and appeal into a more enduring movement that could help end the gridlock that’s paralyzed Washington for so long.
I have no first-hand evidence for these suppositions. But I do have some second-hand evidence from a slightly different context. After Ross Perot’s remarkable performance in the 1992 presidential election, he agreed to debate then-Vice President Al Gore on NAFTA on Larry King’s cable talk show. I was a minor participant in an informal team that tried offering substantive material and rhetorical tips to Perot. He obviously didn’t get smoked because or even mainly because he ignored us. But his stubborn belief in his own media skills and mastery of the subject sure didn’t help. And when he ran for president again in 1996, he made many of the exact same mistakes.
For the record, I haven’t approached the Trump “campaign” in any way, and haven’t been approached by his operatives. (I did try offering advice in a previous political year, but made no headway.) I might send some thoughts on election issues to presidential candidates from time to time, but if I do, I’ll send them to the entire field in both parties, see who (if anyone) responds, and hold a dialogue with them as long as they’re interested. And I’ll report publicly on whatever new experiment in political guru-ing I conduct, just to make clear that I’m not playing any favorites. If I ever get to that point, however, you’ll get the word right away.
Meanwhile, whatever difficulties may prevent Trump from fully capitalizing on the potential to create an enduring populist force in American politics, I’ll shortly explain why they’re probably less impressive than those faced by Sanders – which mainly seem to me not personal but ideological.