The Trump “Style” and Its Appeal

September 13, 2016

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A number of political commentators are starting to suggest that Hillary Clinton could win the upcoming political debates on substance, but lose them on style. No one seems to doubt that Clinton is far more knowledgeable on policy issues and has more detailed policy positions. The latest issue of The Week reports that “Donald Trump’s campaign has seven policy proposals listed on his website, totaling 9,000 words. Hillary Clinton’s campaign has 65 policy fact sheets, with detailed proposals totaling 112,735 words.” Clinton and her running mate, Tim Kaine, have also just released a book describing their proposals, Stronger Together: A Blueprint for America’s Future. Nevertheless, although most commentators regard Donald Trump’s ideas as more simplistic, ill-informed and even dangerous, they have to admit that he continues to appeal to a large portion of the electorate. One explanation is that people just like his style, and style trumps substance in U.S. elections.

What is it about this style that is so appealing? A few adjectives come to mind: loud, combative, self-aggrandizing, politically incorrect, and autocratic.

When I say “loud,” I mean more than the volume of Trump’s voice. He has a way of drowning out other voices in the room by seizing the media spotlight for himself. He provides a steady stream of colorful remarks to resonate in the media echo chamber. He commands attention and attracts a following.

Americans love physical and verbal combat, at least as a spectator sport, and Trump’s combative style appeals to those who feel he is fighting for them. He rallies supporters by portraying America as an embattled nation, threatened primarily by foreigners, immigrants and terrorists. His enemies list also includes anyone who criticizes him or sees the world differently, such as political liberals and most journalists.

Trump is probably the most blatantly self-aggrandizing candidate we’ve ever seen. He claims to have the answer for everything, whether it is inner-city poverty or terrorism. On domestic policy, he knows more than the policy experts who’ve worked on the problems for years, and on military policy he “knows more than the generals.” He rarely reveals his policy plans, of course, but trust him, he has them and they are amazing. This oversize confidence appeals to those who would rather put their faith in a strong father-figure rather than deal with the complexities of the issues.

Trump also boasts of his “political incorrectness.” This rather odd term is a product of the debates over racism and sexism since the 1960s. I think it is a respectable way of saying that one is resisting calls from women and minorities to change attitudes and behavior. For example, women have argued that if they are to be equals in workplaces, universities, the military and other spheres of achievement, they cannot be subjected to unwanted sexual attention. This can be confusing to men, who need to develop the sensitivity to discern when sexual advances are welcome and when they are not. Some men just don’t get it, and claim not to know what all the fuss is about. And some disparage the whole attempt to discourage sexist or racist behavior as an exercise in “political correctness,” a needless infringement on their freedom of thought, speech and action. Boasting about one’s political incorrectness is a way of standing up for the privilege to say and do what one pleases, whether it is offensive to others or not. The fact that Donald Trump rushed to defend Roger Ailes when he was accused of sexual harassment, even before the facts were in, and then brought him into his campaign as an informal adviser after he was fired by Fox News, is an indication of what Trump’s political incorrectness can mean. It is a code word for white male resistance to the new assertiveness of women and minorities.

Does that mean that Trump and his followers are sexists and racists? Obviously that is a very contentious and contested notion. They can easily protest: “We’re not racists; we just want to stop Mexicans and other foreigners from taking our jobs. We just want to stop potential terrorists from entering the country. We just support “law and order” and the right of police to defend themselves against dangerous suspects.” Trump’s critics can point out the racial subtext lying just beneath the surface of these positions. “Law and order,” a favorite phrase of racists from Adolf Hitler to George Wallace, can mean defending the white-supremacist social order by keeping minorities in their place. And what is the racial subtext of the “birther” movement previously led by Donald Trump? He no longer talks about it publicly himself. But a recent poll found that 59% of voters who approve of Trump believe that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and is therefore not qualified to be president. Isn’t the real message that Obama cannot be a legitimate American leader because of the color of his skin?

As a practical matter, calling people sexist or racist is usually counterproductive. I believe that the most prejudiced people have defense mechanisms that allow them to deny their own prejudices. The most we can hope for is to get them to question certain positions by calling attention to their prejudicial implications. For example, if you believe, as many of my students have liked to think, that the playing field is already level and blacks have been given every opportunity, then you may conclude that only laziness or stupidity can account for their higher rates of poverty. Some may be willing to question their assumptions, but only if they are questioned respectfully and not just insulted. Besides, Trump and his supporters have gotten very good at answering such accusations by attacking their attackers. “Call us racists? That’s what you Democrats always do, play the race card when you don’t want to discuss ideas.” (That’s almost an exact quote from a Trump surrogate.) So Trump and his supporters claim the moral high ground while accusing Clinton of being the real bigot, prejudiced against the white working class. Her calling his more extreme supporters “deplorable” only plays into that narrative.

Trump’s political incorrectness walks a fine line, flirting enough with sexism and racism to attract a core following of angry white men, but trying not to be so obvious that moderate Republicans are too shocked to vote for him. So he makes a show of reaching out to African Americans, but in a way that demonstrates little racial understanding or even curiosity. By describing black communities as nothing but cesspools of poverty and crime, he insults the group he claims to want to help. (The black poverty rate is higher than the white rate, but most African Americans are not in poverty.)

Donald Trump’s autocratic tendencies have been on display in his admiration of Vladimir Putin. He may be right that Putin is more popular with Russians than Obama is with Americans, although Obama’s approval rating is much higher than Trump’s. Russians, of course, have a long history of autocratic leadership. Putin has sustained his support by projecting military power abroad (especially by taking Crimea and supporting the Assad dictatorship in Syria), by rigidly controlling the media, and apparently by having some of his opponents eliminated. For now, he is maintaining his popularity despite the downturn in the Russian economy. Trump is impressed with Putin’s strength, without considering whether it is the type of strength appropriate for a more democratic leader. Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov says, “Vladimir Putin is a strong leader in the same way that arsenic is a strong drink.” The New York Times described Putin as “a seductive figure for Western politicians and electors, who often pine for decisive action and a more secure world, free from the uncertainties created by immigration, insecurity and economic globalization.”

Personal style or social movement?

I have characterized the Trump style as loud, combative, self-aggrandizing, politically incorrect and autocratic. Others will no doubt want to add their own adjectives, some less polite than mine. But is that really what the Trump phenomenon is about, or is it a lot more than that?

Some media observers have started to use the term “Trumpism” to distinguish the Donald’s brand of politics from mainstream conservatism. Without denying the need to make such a distinction, I’m not sure that’s the best thing to call it. That may give the impression that the Trump phenomenon is nothing but a personal style of politics that will fade from the scene if Trump loses. Although we may never see another Donald Trump, we have seen this kind of belligerent politics before. It is the kind of political stance that appeals to people who feel that somebody is taking something away from them, and they see no alternative but to fight to take it back. It is what we see when social change threatens to leave people behind. They become susceptible to the appeal of some tough-talking strong man who promises to restore them to their former position. That’s the real message of “make America great again.”

In theory, a changing economy has the potential to create as well as destroy, to create new jobs and new skills to replace those that are in decline. How exactly to do that in today’s globalizing, automating economy is a problem that has many experts scratching their heads. People can be forgiven for wanting to hold onto what they have or get back what they have lost. They want to hear that we can bring the coal mining jobs back, not that they are gone forever. We could be having a national conversation about how government could help facilitate postindustrial development. Instead, Trump has us fixated on walling ourselves off from the rest of the world.

People in other countries have their own reasons for supporting reactionary politics. Millions of ordinary Muslims have gotten little or no benefit from the limited modernization of their countries and the development of their oil resources. Angry Muslims who blame America (the largest oil consumer) for their problems are not so different from the anti-Muslim Americans who want to “bomb the hell out of them.” Neither group sees a positive way forward toward peace and prosperity in the world as a whole or the Middle East in particular. Both sides just cling to their traditions, dream of restoring lost greatness, and wish that the other side would disappear.

Today’s global problems call for imagination, creativity and innovation. People need empowerment, to be sure, but they need constructive forms of power like the power of knowledge, organization, and cooperative uses of economic resources. The alternative is a pessimistic, reactionary politics where society is viewed as a zero-sum game and power is used to settle who wins and who loses. That’s where the Trump style fits right in. Don’t create anything new; just take back what seems rightfully yours. Take back manufacturing jobs by erecting trade barriers to foreign goods, but somehow make the rest of the world accept our exports. Take back jobs that have gone to immigrants by kicking them out and building a wall to keep them out. Keep the Middle Eastern oil flowing, and take over foreign oil fields if necessary to keep them out of enemy hands.

Who better to carry out such policies than a loud, combative, self-aggrandizing, politically incorrect autocrat? Donald Trump is that kind of guy, but he is not the only one. If one such leader fails, another will probably emerge, until more people see a better way forward. Reactionary populism is on the ascendancy in many countries, including countries like Germany and Austria that ought to know better. We have seen this before, during the Great Depression and World War II. It is bigger than any one man, and we should not underestimate the danger.


Hillbilly Elegy (part 3)

September 7, 2016

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Subcultures as adaptations

J. D. Vance has vividly described the “hillbilly” culture into which he was born, but which he outgrew. He has also offered a critique of that culture, showing how its attitudes and behavioral norms can become obstacles to personal health, happiness and achievement.

As with much of the writing in the “culture of poverty” tradition, the critique can exaggerate how much the poor are responsible for their own way of life and all its problems. I fear that Vance is falling into this trap when he says that “these problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.” But the cultures of “hillbillies” or inner-city blacks or Latino farmworkers are not self-contained worlds independent of the larger social environment. They are American subcultures that have always been shaped by the institutions of the dominant culture.

One does not have to be a strict social determinist to argue that subcultures adapt to the institutional realities of the surrounding society. People do create their own culture, often in surprisingly innovative ways. But they cannot do it in a social vacuum. People interact all the time with institutions like work organizations, schools, churches and governments, which provide both challenges and opportunities.  The lack of agency Vance complains about–the feeling that one lacks control over one’s life–arises especially because the poor and uneducated are in such a weak position in relation to such institutions. The poor don’t just need new attitudes and behaviors; they need empowerment.

At one point in his childhood, Vance was called upon to testify in court against his own mother, who had physically attacked him. That was when he noticed that “the social workers and the judge and the lawyer all had TV accents. None of us did. The people who ran the courthouse were different from us. The people subjected to it were not.” On that occasion, Vance lied in order to protect his mother and keep those strange-talking outsiders from hurting his family. Vance describes his people as preferring their own form of justice. “My people were extreme, but extreme in the service of something— defending a sister’s honor or ensuring that a criminal paid for his crimes. The Blanton men, like the tomboy Blanton sister whom I called Mamaw, were enforcers of hillbilly justice, and to me, that was the very best kind.” He does not analyze this further, but an informal, homemade system of justice is a predictable adaptation for people who see the official justice system as not serving their class of people very well.

When Vance is exploring the psychology of work, he says, “When groups perceive that it’s in their interest to work hard and achieve things, members of that group outperform other similarly situated individuals. It’s obvious why: If you believe that hard work pays off, then you work hard; if you think it’s hard to get ahead even when you try, then why try at all?” I would add the sociological point that such beliefs are shaped over time by social experience. When opportunities are opening up, as they were in the heyday of manufacturing expansion, people become more optimistic. But when opportunities are shrinking, families with few generations of success to remember are easily discouraged.  Subcultures do change, but they change slowly, and mostly in response to changing conditions. Vance mentions that the emigrants from coal country who found manufacturing jobs “had largely caught up to the native population in terms of income and poverty level” within two generations. But the postwar economic progress was not sustained long enough to eradicate the culture of poverty. Generations of restricted opportunity had created it, and generations of expanded opportunity were required to repair it.

Women’s agency

Another example of how American social institutions help account for subcultural adaptations involves women and sexuality. One of the best examples of the lack of agency Vance deplores is unplanned teenage pregnancies. They figure prominently in his story, since his mother became pregnant at 18 and his grandmother at 14. If sociologists have learned anything about gender in the past half-century of intensive study, it is that the institutions of patriarchal society are largely responsible for limiting women’s agency in general, and women’s control over their own bodies specifically. A lot of early pregnancies and shaky marriages are what you get when the dominant culture glamorizes sexuality and portrays women primarily as sex objects; when schools fail to provide sex education or limit it to preaching abstinence; when churches teach that sex is too shameful to discuss and contraception is sinful; when the local economy provides few career opportunities for women, so they see no life for themselves except as mothers; when good jobs for men are also in short supply, so they express their masculinity by obtaining and controlling women, sometimes by force, but not so much by supporting their families. This is also a vicious circle, since early motherhood can offer an escape from the troubled homes created by the previous generation of young mothers.

Blaming families for their own problems is easy. No one denies that what girls and boys learn at home can shape their gender roles for a lifetime and affect whether they express their own sexuality responsibly. Parents are primary carriers of culture, to be sure, but they cannot be expected to transform their received culture singlehandedly. Expecting families to change the culture without supportive changes in other social institutions is not realistic.

The politics of pessimism

Vance concludes his book by saying, “I don’t know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.” I imagine that few people will disagree with his call for more personal responsibility. I do note, however, that this is essentially the Ronald Reagan philosophy of government, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for yourselves.” Vance does not see much for government to do about the plight of the struggling working class, since “the fault lies almost entirely with factors outside the government’s control.”

In truth, neither of the major political parties has been offering much hope to the white working class lately. Hillary Clinton does not seem to be connecting with them very well at all. Donald Trump is speaking to them directly, but appealing to their prejudices and false hopes. He encourages them to blame their problems on foreigners and immigrants, reject climate change as a hoax, and hope for a return of coal mining jobs.

But I think something is lost if citizens of a democracy become too pessimistic about their own government. Vance doesn’t want people to blame government for their problems, but he doesn’t want them to look to government for solutions either. In that respect, he can be accused of reinforcing the alienation from mainstream institutions that is a familiar trait of “hillbilly” culture. By focusing on agency as a psychological characteristic, he overlooks the value of the social agency that arises when citizens cooperate together in a common political cause.

One thing that government is going to have to do is increase support for higher education, so that students can go to college without accumulating massive debt. States have been cutting spending on education at the same time that the educational requirements of good jobs have been rising. (Vance should appreciate that need, since his own success story depended on a state-supported university and generous financial aid from a private law school.) Another thing for government to do is to promote industries that have realistic hopes of creating good jobs. The solar industry already employs a lot more people than the coal industry. Ironically, Hillary Clinton is the one calling for these things (when she can be heard over the clamor for her emails), but she is getting her least support from working-class whites who might benefit from them.

Assuming the Trump candidacy fails, as I hope it does, I would like to see the white working class join other disadvantaged groups in a progressive coalition for realistic socioeconomic change. If that seems improbable, we should remember that that’s what they did during the Roosevelt era.

 

 


Hillbilly Elegy (part 2)

September 6, 2016

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J. D. Vance describes himself as a “cultural emigrant” from the “hillbilly” culture of his youth to the upper-middle-class world of educated professionals. That puts him in a somewhat detached position, from which he can see his former world as not just a collection of individual characters, but as a common culture with typical beliefs, values and patterns of behavior.

One major theme of the book is that “social class in America isn’t just about money.” It’s also about lifestyle, and upward mobility is unlikely without changes in lifestyle. The attitudes and behaviors people acquire in their early socialization can get in their own way.

William H. Whyte classically defined the “Protestant ethic” as an ethic of hard work, thrift and self-reliance. Vance sees too much of the opposite: laziness, overspending and blaming others for one’s problems. To be fair, he doesn’t actually use the world “lazy,” but he does say, “We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs. Sometimes we’ll get a job, but it won’t last. We’ll get fired for tardiness, or for stealing merchandise and selling it on eBay, or for having a customer complain about the smell of alcohol on our breath, or for taking five thirty-minute restroom breaks per shift.” Without denying the reality of these problems, I will note that Whyte, writing in the 1950s, was questioning how much of a work ethic American society really wanted anymore. Prosperous, corporate American seemed to be placing increasing value on leisure, spending, and reliance on big organizations. Sometimes I wonder how long many higher-class people would last in some of the grueling jobs that poor people have to do. But I digress.

Vance’s number one complaint is that too many “hillbillies” lack a strong sense of personal agency, a belief that their choices matter and that they can take control of their own lives. That puts them in a strange relationship with their own government. On the one hand, “a large minority are content to live off the dole.” On the other hand, many like to blame the government for their problems. And those who are trying to uphold the traditional work ethic, at least in theory, may blame government for spending too much on public assistance.  Vance suggests that this is a bigger reason why so many low-income whites have abandoned the Democratic Party than the Party’s support for the Civil Rights Movement. I’m not so sure that those two issues can be separated, since white resentment of government spending is probably strengthened by the perception that people of color are getting more help than white people are. In any case, Appalachian whites have shifted their allegiance to the party of limited government even as their economic vulnerability and potential dependency have been increasing.

Vance describes his people as uniquely pessimistic and cynical, much more so than Latinos or blacks. They are patriotic in a vague sort of way, but do not currently have any heroes as they once had Franklin Roosevelt. Largely detached from the wider society, they can be intensely loyal to kin and react violently to perceived threats from outsiders. They pride themselves on their toughness, which they rely on to compensate for other weaknesses. As a child, Vance had a lot of opportunities to learn about drinking, yelling and fighting, but not much else about being a man.

Reacting strongly against the idea of blaming others for one’s problems, Vance concludes that “these problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.”

I have a concern about this perspective that I will elaborate in my next post. I think that Vance’s discussion of “hillbilly” culture is strong on personal observation but weak on analysis. He is, after all, a young lawyer, not a sociologist, anthropologist or economist. He makes the world he describes sound too much like a standalone culture, as if we had just discovered it in some remote jungle. It is, rather, an American subculture shaped and reshaped by the institutions of American society. Those institutions include churches and schools, and yes, government and corporations. American institutions, from coal companies to Bible Belt churches, have been a demonstrable part of the problem, and institutional change as well as personal change will have to be part of the solution.

Continued


Hillbilly Elegy

September 5, 2016

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J. D. Vance. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. HarperCollins Kindle Edition, 2016.

First, I want to express my discomfort with the word “hillbilly,” a word I have rarely spoken. For many, it is a derogatory term. Vance uses it because that’s the way his family described themselves, but I will use the quotation marks to indicate that it is his term, not mine.

J. D. Vance is a young man who overcame a troubled family history to graduate from Ohio State and Yale Law School. He says that he still identifies with the people he grew up with, “the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty is the family tradition–their ancestors were day laborers in the Southern slave economy, sharecroppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and millworkers during more recent times.” The story of such people is a story of generations of economic hardship, considerable upward mobility during the booming manufacturing economy after World War II, but a return of hard times for those displaced by the recent loss of manufacturing jobs.

This is not, however, primarily a book about economics. It is a book about the “hillbilly” culture that often gets in the way of personal achievement. Vance sees it as “a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” Vance found that he had to overcome many of the self-defeating attitudes and behavior patterns he encountered among his own friends and relations. Fortunately he got some more positive messages too, messages about working hard and doing well in school, especially from his grandparents. They had gotten out and moved up themselves during the postwar boom, although they continued to lead troubled lives in many ways.

Vance says that he always thought of Jackson, Kentucky, where his great-grandmother lived, as his home, although he was born and raised in Middletown, Ohio. His grandparents, always referred to as Mamaw and Papaw, moved to Ohio “at the tender ages of fourteen and seventeen,” forming a hasty union as a result of teenage pregnancy. They joined a massive migration out of Appalachia to the industrializing cities, a migration Vance describes as spreading the “hillbilly” culture as well as the people. Papaw got a job at a steel company and provided a good income. The first baby lived only a few days, but the couple had three more, the second of whom was J. D.’s mother Bev. The marriage became increasingly troubled, however. Vance describes his grandfather as a violent drunk, and his grandmother as a socially isolated violent non-drunk.

Vance describes his mother Bev as a good student, but she chose marriage over college when she became pregnant at eighteen. She went on to have five failed marriages and a serious drug problem. Vance says that what he hated most about his childhood was “the revolving door of father figures.” He was born in 1984, a product of his mother’s second marriage, which lasted only a couple of years. He was later adopted by his mother’s third husband. After that marriage ended too, his mother became more erratic in her behavior, more drug-dependent, and sometimes abusive. J. D. began to live much of the time with his grandparents, who still lived close by, although they too were separated. “Mamaw told me that if Mom had a problem with the arrangement, she could talk to the barrel of Mamaw’s gun.”

Vance also relied heavily on his older half-sister Lindsey, whom he describes as the person he has been proudest to know. As their mother’s parenting deteriorated, Lindsey assumed a more adult-like role, and went on to have a successful marriage. After she moved out, J. D. lived for a time with his biological father, who had remarried. Then he came back to live with his mother and her latest husband. When that marriage ended, he spent the last two years of high school living with Mamaw exclusively. That’s what he says turned his life around. During that time he showed dramatic improvement at school, both academically and behaviorally, for which he gives Mamaw much of the credit.

After finishing high school, Vance entered the Marine Corps, which “taught me how to live like an adult.” The Marines assumed that everyone needed to learn basic things like personal hygiene and how to balance a checkbook. By the time he left, he had risen to the position of media relations officer for a large military base. After the Marines, he attended Ohio State and Yale Law School. Because he was poor, Yale gave him a substantial financial aid package. He was the first person in his nuclear family to go to college and the first in his extended family to go to professional school.

At Yale, Vance had the good fortune to meet, and later marry, a law student from a much more stable background. Here he uses a standard list of “adverse childhood events” (ACEs), to make the point. They include things like parental divorce, drug abuse, domestic violence, depression and suicide. Vance had six ACEs in his background, while his partner had none. While his basic approach to relationship issues was fight or flight–attack or run away–he learned from her how to stay and talk problems through. Here is Vance’s rather caustic summary of what he had learned about conflict resolution in his childhood:

Never speak at a reasonable volume when screaming will do; if the fight gets a little too intense, it’s okay to slap and punch, so long as the man doesn’t hit first; always express your feelings in a way that’s insulting and hurtful to your partner; if all else fails, take the kids and the dog to a local motel, and don’t tell your spouse where to find you— if he or she knows where the children are, he or she won’t worry as much, and your departure won’t be as effective.

As such comments make clear, the book is not just an autobiography, but a critique of “hillbilly” culture. My next post will go more deeply into that critique.

Continued


Clinton and Trump on Fiscal Policy (part 2)

August 17, 2016

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The last post discussed differences between the candidates in their approach to taxing and spending. Both have ambitious spending plans, but Hillary Clinton proposes to raise the revenue to finance hers by increasing taxes on the wealthy. Donald Trump proposes to increase spending and cut taxes at the same time, with the largest reductions for the wealthy.

Estate taxes

The candidates also sharply disagree over estate taxes. As a result of previous tax cuts, estate taxes only apply to individual estates valued at over $5.45 million, or $10.9 million for married couples. Only one estate out of every 500, or 0.2% of estates, are large enough to have to pay any estate taxes at all.

Amounts that exceed these thresholds are taxed at 40%. However,the wealthy are also able to use various legal devices to limit the size of their taxable estates, so that most pay less than half of that.

Consistent with her aim to get the rich to pay “their fair share,” Clinton proposes to raise the estate tax rate to 45% and to apply the tax to more estates. The new, lower thresholds would be $3.5 million for individuals and $7 million for couples.

Trump would abolish the estate tax altogether, creating another big tax break that would benefit only the richest 1/5 of the 1%. For those as rich as himself (or at least, as he claims to be), the tax savings could run into the billions.  Personally, I think that any candidate who claims to care about struggling working families could find a better use for that tax revenue.

I will cheerfully state my own bias here. I think that taxes on large estates are a good idea in a democracy. They help equalize opportunity, rather than letting the children of the rich be born with a gilt-edge guarantee of future prosperity. They also help avoid the formation of  hereditary aristocracies or plutocracies, which tilt power toward the wealthy and away from average citizens. How strange that an alleged populist cannot appreciate that!

Business taxes

In the area of corporate taxes, the Clinton plan is again more moderate than the Trump plan. She proposes some small changes to the tax code in order to discourage businesses from moving abroad. For example, she would crack down on “tax inversions,” where companies avoid US taxes by merging with a foreign company and moving their corporate headquarters to that country.

Donald Trump would reduce the incentive of companies to leave the United States by lowering the corporate tax rate, which at 35% is one of the highest in the world. Many corporations take advantage of the many deductions and loopholes in our tax code, some pretty reasonable and others pretty tricky. In general, Trump proposes to do what many tax critics recommend, lower the rate but close many of the loopholes.

However, the Trump plan is radical in some respects. He proposes a new corporate rate of 15%, which is below even the House Republican recommendation of 20%. He would also apply that rate to all sorts of businesses, including partnerships, limited liability companies and sole proprietorships. As it stands now, those entities “pass through” income to individuals, who pay taxes on it at “ordinary income” rates as high as 39.6% (or 33% after Trump’s other cuts). According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, two-thirds of this pass-through income goes to the top 1% of taxpayers, who are obviously in the top bracket. Taxing those entities at only 15% would be another windfall for the wealthy.

In addition, it would create a new tax loophole for wealthy individuals. Many highly paid employees could lower their taxes to 15% simply by reclassifying themselves as independent contractors and selling their services to their former employers.

The choice

In her tax and spend proposals, Hillary Clinton comes off as the fiscal moderate but social progressive, wanting to finance her new spending plans with modest tax increases on the wealthy. Her tax plan is expected to bring in $1.1 trillion in additional revenue over ten years. Donald Trump comes off as the fiscal risk-taker and plutocrat, willing to increase the deficit in order to give out more tax breaks, primarily for the wealthy. His original plan would have reduced revenue by as much as $9.5 trillion over ten years, although he would hope to offset that by stimulating a higher rate of economic growth. (That’s what tax cutters always hope for but rarely achieve.) The current plan discussed here is just beginning to be analyzed, but I would be surprised if the cost in revenue would come out less than four or five trillion.

As I have said before, the Republican Party has the perennial problem of how to win electoral majorities while pursuing an economic agenda whose top priority is tax relief for rich people. The solution is often some form of cultural conservatism with broad appeal, such as Christian conservatism. Declining enthusiasm for the Religious Right has created an opportunity for a more troubling form of conservatism, more nativist and nationalist, to arise. In Donald Trump we have an odd marriage of nationalist populism and anti-tax plutocracy, the first appealing more to the less educated, and the second more to the rich. But not enough of the educated middle class are buying into this mix to make it the new ideological foundation for the party. Meanwhile, the Democrats are gradually becoming more progressive again, and they should be a formidable political force. For one thing, they are winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the younger generation, at least in this election.