Donald Trump explains his economic plan.

Donald Trump Wants You to Think He’s a Populist. But His Economic Plan Is Built for the Rich.

Donald Trump Wants You to Think He’s a Populist. But His Economic Plan Is Built for the Rich.

Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.
Sept. 15 2016 4:22 PM

Donald Trump Wants You to Think He’s a Populist. But His Economic Plan Is Built for the Rich.

trump_economic_club
Donald Trump has plans.

Mike Segar/Reuters

There was one particularly funny and telling moment during the big speech on economics that Donald Trump delivered Thursday in New York. After a long introduction that revisited many of his familiar themes about the evils of “globalism,” disappearing manufacturing jobs, and the need to put “America first,” the Republican nominee offered up an ambitious mission statement of sorts to the crowd of assorted business types. His administration, Trump said, would set “a national goal of reaching 4 percent economic growth.” Not a measly 2 percent. Not 3 percent. But 4 percent. “My great economists don’t want me to say this, but I think we can do better than that,” he added as an aside.

Jordan Weissmann Jordan Weissmann

Jordan Weissmann is Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.

If the idea of 4 percent growth sounds familiar to you, that's because Trump isn't the first candidate to bring it up this election cycle. Poor, deflated Jeb Bush made the exact same promise when he launched his own presidential campaign, which Trump torpedoed with a steady barrage of mockery. Having trounced his old foe, the mogul was now repeating Bush's signature line in front of a crowd at the swanky Economic Club of New York that probably included a few of Jeb's former donors. It was the Republican politics equivalent of kicking sand in some poor nerd's face and walking off with his girlfriend.

Advertisement

But Trump hasn't just learned to repeat the Republican donor class's shibboleths about economics. Despite his campaign's populist veneer, Trump is offering this establishment breed of Republican the kinds of policies it most dearly wants, which is to say a platform of massive tax cuts and deregulation that would greatly benefit the sorts of people who can afford to attend a Hamptons fundraiser.

Consider Trump's new tax plan, which was theoretically the focus of Thursday's speech. His original vision, released last year, was a barely thought-out parody of a public policy document—a monstrous giveaway to the wealthy with a price tag somewhere north of $10 trillion over a decade, or more expensive than Medicare. With the help of some old Republican supply-side hands, like former Heritage Foundation chief economist Stephen Moore, Trump has scaled back his new blueprint into a more generically bonkers conservative proposal—which is to say, it would still cost a budget-busting $4.4 trillion, with much of the benefits clearly tilted to the wealthy. Trump argued Thursday that his income-tax cuts, which also include his much-hyped credits for child care, would lower the IRS burden for middle-class families while “someone earning $5 million will receive virtually no change in their tax bill at all.” But that almost certainly ignores the massive corporate tax relief Trump has proposed, which would largely benefit shareholders. Trump's decidedly not-middle-class crowd actually whooped when the candidate said he would knock the top tax rate on businesses down from 35 percent to 15 percent. (“I know that's what you've been waiting for,” he said in response.) The man has also promised to eliminate the estate tax, which already only affects multimillionaires.

Unfortunately, we'll have to wait until think tanks formally score Trump's new plan to know precisely how its benefits are distributed. But eyeballing them now, it seems pretty clear they'll tilt to the rich. When I asked Alan Cole of the conservative Tax Foundation for a ballpark estimate, he suggested about half the cost would come from corporate and estate-tax reductions.

To be fair, there are aspects of Trump's tax plan that are less plutocrat-friendly than what other Republicans have previously proposed. For instance, Jeb Bush would have reduced the top marginal tax rate from 39.6 percent to 28 percent. Trump settles for 33 percent. Marco Rubio would have entirely eliminated taxes on capital gains and dividends. Trump leaves those rates alone. But it also seems absurd to think Trump is especially attached to any particular part of his plan, other than maybe the corporate rate reductions, which he's talked about forever, and his daughter Ivanka's child care proposals. The basic outlines offer little reason to think he'd be unhappy signing something similar to what Paul Ryan has proposed in the House (his income tax rates are already similar). That, of course, would be the Republican establishment's dream. And much like Ryan, he's promised to pay for his proposals with a combination of cuts to nondefense spending, which will almost certainly fall on the poor, as well as phantom economic growth he says his proposals will spur—a magical 3 to 4 percent asterisk.

Beyond taxes, Trump spent a good portion of Thursday's speech talking about his plans to deregulate vast swaths of industry. He'd nix President Obama's clean power plan to fight climate change. He's previously vowed to do away with Dodd-Frank's Wall Street reforms and consumer protections. This is obviously the stuff of lobbyists' dreams, especially in an era when banks are paying massive fines to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for doing things like creating customer accounts without permission.

Of course, the one economic subject where Trump truly departs from Republican orthodoxy these days is trade (the audience was noticeably quiet when talked about it Thursday). And to be sure, Trump still barks about protecting American workers. But his actual proposals don't exactly have fangs. He's promised to label China a currency manipulator and slap tariffs on its goods. Mitt Romney also promised to do the former, and as for the latter, well, chances are companies will find other low-wage countries to import goods from before they bring jobs back to the U.S. He says he'll renegotiate NAFTA or pull out of it entirely. But never does Trump say exactly what he'd like to renegotiate for. He promises to aggressively pursue trade cases against countries that violate existing agreements, which—shocker—the Obama administration has been doing for a while.

So while Trump makes noise about helping the working class, he mostly has a plan to help the wealthy. And that, more than anything, should tell you why he's won the support of hedge funders like his chief fundraiser and rumored Treasury Secretary choice, Steve Mnuchin, and Anthony Scaramucci. On the matters dearest to their hearts—taxes and regulation—Trump is turning into Jeb Bush with a dash of blue collar-friendly racial and nationalist demagoguery. He's passing off a plan to help one-percenters as populist. If you're a financier sitting in the Economic Club of New York, what's not to love?