By now it is fairly clear that Donald Trump can get away with expressing views that would sink almost any other GOP candidate. While the other Republican presidential contenders had readied themselves for several rounds of more-conservative-than-thou—the usual contest in the GOP primary—Trump has blithely abandoned any number of conservative orthodoxies, and he doesn’t appear to have lost any supporters in the process. Indeed, he may well have gained a few. This week, pollster Frank Luntz conducted a focus group of current and former Trump supporters. For over two and a half hours, Luntz probed their reactions to Trump’s past support for abortion rights and stricter gun laws, among other heresies, and he found that none of them seemed to care.
Luntz’s findings help explain the persistence of Trump’s lead in polls of GOP primary voters over the past several weeks, even as Jeb Bush has been on a mission to prove that Trump is a barely disguised tax-and-spend liberal. Can you imagine another Republican praising Canada’s single-payer health care system and socialized medicine in Scotland, as Trump did during the Fox News GOP debate? And then getting away with it? In a recent interview with Chuck Todd of Meet the Press, Trump said that he was “fine with affirmative action,” having “lived with it for a long time.” Suffice it to say, conservative opponents of racial preferences were less than pleased. But have Trump’s diehard supporters been abandoning him in droves? They haven’t yet.
In that same Meet the Press interview, Trump warned against corporations that “have no loyalty to this country,” language that brought to mind John Kerry’s campaign against “Benedict Arnold CEOs.” Yes, Trump followed up by saying we ought to cut corporate taxes to keep these companies from fleeing our shores—a stance embraced by most mainstream Republicans—but it’s the vehemence with which Trump attacks CEOs that is noteworthy. It’s very hard to imagine a member of the Bush family using the same language—or a libertarian conservative like Rand Paul for that matter. And while several of Trump’s rivals for the GOP nomination have either embraced a flat tax outright or praised the idea in principle, the billionaire real estate developer offered a robust defense of progressive taxation on Fox & Friends. When asked about hedge-fund managers in particular, Trump said without hesitation that “they’re not paying enough tax.” He then implied that well-heeled hedge-funders have been shielded from higher taxes by politicians who depend on their campaign contributions. This is very much in keeping with the way Trump has ridiculed his opponents for being so dependent on wealthy donors.
What does all of this mean? It means that Trump has a realistic shot at building a lasting political movement that operates outside of the mainstream American right. I’m of the view that the 20-25 percent of the GOP primary vote that Trump currently commands is close to his ceiling, and that he is unlikely to win the Republican presidential nomination. Eventually, the rest of the party will rally around a candidate capable of defeating him. I am also convinced, however, that Trump represents a serious political current in American life, which rhymes with, though it is not identical to, many of the nationalist and populist political movements that have been roiling European politics for the last decade and a half.
So instead of kowtowing to the GOP establishment by, say, ruling out a third-party run for the White House, and jeopardizing his hard-earned brand as an in-your-face populist truth-teller in the process, Trump could match or even surpass the share of the popular vote Ross Perot won in 1992 by embracing a potent mix of right-wing and left-wing policy prescriptions.
What might full-spectrum Trumpism look like? What are the positions Trump should take to expand his political base on issues other than immigration?
One good place to start would be campaign finance reform. If Trump embraced the campaign finance reform proposals of Larry Lessig, the liberal activist and Harvard professor of constitutional law who is running a quixotic single-issue campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, he would do a number of things all at once.* First, by advocating for public funding for campaigns and curbs on high-dollar contributions, he would have an excuse to keep shaming his GOP opponents for their reliance on wealthy donors and their notionally independent Super PACs. Second, he would add intellectual heft to his populism, which would force his media detractors to give him at least some begrudging respect. Granted, Trump’s core supporters are mostly indifferent to media sentiment. But favorable coverage of his proposals will soften anti-Trump attitudes among those who don’t support him, making them more persuadable.
In his recent interview with Todd, Trump said that he favored keeping the minimum wage roughly where it is now. That is a political (though not a substantive) mistake, as 42 percent of Republicans favor an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10, and 18 percent favor an even steeper increase to $15. The Republicans who back minimum wage increases tend to be more blue-collar than white-collar, and it is blue-collar voters who’ve been most enthusiastic about Trump. One could imagine Trump making an argument not unlike that made by Ron Unz in the American Conservative back in 2011. “The automatic rejoinder to proposals for hiking the minimum wage is that ‘jobs will be lost,’ ” wrote Unz. “But in today’s America a huge fraction of jobs at or near the minimum wage are held by immigrants, often illegal ones.” And so, he went on to argue, eliminating jobs that serve as a magnet for less-skilled immigrants “is a central goal of the plan, not a feature or a bug.” Backing a minimum wage hike would strengthen Trump’s populist credentials, and it might even win him some union voters from the other side of the aisle.
Having come out in favor of progressive taxes and steeper taxes for hedge-fund managers, where should Trump land on tax reform? One thing to keep in mind is that while it is fairly rare that tax reform proposals dreamed up in the heat of a presidential campaign actually add up, Trump is under even less pressure to offer a tax reform plan that makes sense than his opponents, as his strength flows from his ability to convince his supporters that his alleged negotiating prowess is all he needs to make miracles happen. So I would suggest that Trump create a new tax bracket for millionaires that would apply to both wage and nonwage income—this is how he’d get the hedge-funders—and then propose a deep cut in the Social Security payroll tax, one that could apply to all workers or only to those earning below the median income. Naturally, cutting the payroll tax will raise concerns about Trump’s commitment to Social Security, which is why he should then call for hiking Social Security benefits. Is it at all wise to cut Social Security taxes while also raising benefits? No, it is not. But I doubt that will matter to Trump’s supporters.
Finally, Trump should exhume a proposal that died during the Obamacare debate, yet would command the enthusiastic backing of many American voters: He should allow Americans under the age of 65 to “buy-in” to Medicare. Back in 2007, Gerald F. Anderson and Hugh R. Waters, both of Johns Hopkins University, devised a program they called Medicare Part E, with the “E” standing for “Everyone.” Essentially, they proposed that everyone, whether through their employers or as individuals, be allowed to enroll in Medicare, provided they pay a premium that reflects their ability to pay. Trump could tread more lightly by, say, limiting Medicare Part E to Americans above a certain age, like 50. This would lower the cost of the proposal, and it would also resonate with middle-aged voters frustrated with their private health insurance options. Fiscal conservatives, myself included, would flip out at such a proposal, and so might some members of Trump’s inner circle, including his chief campaign guru, Corey Lewandowski, a veteran of the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity. What can’t be denied, however, is that Medicare is wildly popular.
If Trump adopted every one of these proposals, wouldn’t he just be a liberal? We can certainly expect that Trump’s conservative opponents will make that argument. As long as Trump remains committed to a more assertive and nationalistic approach to immigration and foreign policy, however, he’ll have an easy time presenting himself as a man of the right. I’m fairly confident that Trump won’t go down this road I’ve described. But if he does, Trump and Trumpism will be with us for many years to come, for better or for worse.
Correction, Aug. 28, 2015: The piece originally misstated that Larry Lessig is a professor at Stanford. He is a professor at Harvard.