Trump’s flair for the absurd risks a new era of economic upheaval

By Kate Andrews

What will be the defining issue for Republican voters at the next election? The answer appears to be the same as it is for the rest of the country, and the same as it has always been: the economy, stupid.

A healthy (or ailing) economy tends to underpin America’s political trends – and it’s about more than the growth rate. In 2016, Donald Trump didn’t just tap into frustrations about economic stagnation, but a sense of unfairness and strangling bureaucracy, too.

Donald Trump has not laid out a strong economic plan. He hasn’t needed to.
Donald Trump has not laid out a strong economic plan. He hasn’t needed to.Credit: AP

Had the former president not turned all focus onto himself after the 2020 election by refusing to accept the result, it might have been more widely acknowledged that the Republican party performed well across the country, especially at a local level, because, before Covid hit, the economy was booming.

This was something voters had not forgotten, despite lockdowns and the subsequent deep recession.

But while Republicans continue to insist that the economy is one of their primary concerns (caucus-goers in Iowa and voters in New Hampshire both told exit pollsters it was front of mind when voting), what this means exactly seems to have changed since the 2016 race.

It’s no longer about the traditional economic talking points: rather, it’s about what the economy means in the context of Trumpmania – a world away from the classical liberalism that not so long ago guided the Grand Old Party. No one has learned this the hard way more than Nikki Haley, the two-term governor of South Carolina and Republican presidential candidate, who is now barely hanging on in this race. Credit to Haley: she has fared far better than most of her rivals, some of whom were expected to go much further.

Unlike Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who simply could not translate the fame and gravitas he acquired during the pandemic to a national election, Haley has emerged as the “non-Trump” candidate.

She looks like she is going to try to keep her candidacy going for as long as possible. But after her defeat in New Hampshire, Trump’s nomination looks close to a done deal. Haley would have known she was facing a tough battle: the shadow of Trump looms large, and no American politician, especially on the right, appears positioned to escape from under it.

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But it’s been surprising just how little voters have responded to her economic talking points. She tried hard to muster up a sense of frustration about out-of-control spending habits, the unrealistic giveaways being promised to Americans, the ever-growing size of the debt. It simply didn’t land.“Joe Biden is proving that reckless spending is the road to socialism. But he’s not the only culprit,” Haley told a crowd in Manchester, New Hampshire: not this week, but four months ago when she was already canvassing the state.

“Joe Biden, Donald Trump and Barack Obama added more to our national debt than the previous 42 presidents combined,” she pointed out, which has led to US national debt surpassing $US34 trillion ($51.7 trillion) at the start of this year.

Haley has spared few words when it comes to Trump’s record on the debt, which soared by nearly $US8 billion during his four years in office. While a large chunk of this was related to emergency pandemic spending, debt was rising steadily in the President’s first three years in office, as he focused on tax cuts, but not spending reform.Meanwhile, Haley’s main economic talking points this election season have been rooted in fiscal discipline. Her proposal to spur on economic growth put emphasis on both tax and spend: a return to a more traditional Republican offering.

It’s been surprising just how little voters have responded to Nikki Haley’s economic talking points.
It’s been surprising just how little voters have responded to Nikki Haley’s economic talking points.Credit: AP

Yet Republican voters didn’t respond. Haley only won 25 per cent of voters who identified as “Republican” in the New Hampshire primary. 70 per cent of her voters were “undeclared” or “independent” (a flexibility which the state allows in its primaries).

It seems those who consider themselves in the muddy middle resonated more with her calls for a more responsible public financing. But the vast majority of Republican-identifying voters gravitated towards Trump.

So what economic vision is Trump offering this time around? Back in 2016, his version of reviving American greatness was a rather clunky mix of protectionism and tax cuts. This time, the emphasis is on the former, with an even bigger flair for absurdity. Trump’s major economic policy so far seems to be a plan to implement a 10 per cent tariff on all imported goods. It’s a policy he insists “is not going to stop business because it’s not that much”, while the Tax Foundation estimates would amount to a $US300 billion tax on US consumers if implemented – one which the think tank notes is at risk of “rivalling the ones proposed by President Biden”.

The shadow of Trump looms large, and no American politician, especially on the right, appears positioned to escape from under it.

Yet Republicans, so far, aren’t turned off by his messaging. In the New Hampshire race – where Trump won with 54.3 per cent of the vote, compared to Haley’s 43.2 per cent – the number of voters who said the “economy is most important” mirrored the final vote almost perfectly, slightly tipping in Trump’s favour with 55 per cent voting for the former president and 43 per cent voting for the former governor according to exit polls from CBS News.

Only two states have voted so far – but polls suggest nothing is about to change. Unless there is a spectacular upset, Trump and his increasingly interventionist economic policy is going to get a mandate from the grassroots. Trump’s bombastic attitude towards the economy and trade is, unsurprisingly, playing well with the Republican base, which keep reporting back that they prioritise a “strong leader” and someone who is ready for a fight.

But how will that play nationally? Are independents and swing voters ready to opt into more trade wars? In 2016, Trump led on the theatrics throughout the primaries: the rallies that went on for hours on end, the pledges that seemed to pop up overnight because they received applause.

Yet there were sprinklings of serious policy thrown into the debate, certainly on the economy and developing a growth agenda.

Eight years on, the promotion of serious economic policy seems even less like a consideration. It is the Trump circus that is pulling people in – his supporters, and indeed the party, seem like they can’t get enough. But it is also a strange calculation. Trump’s legacy on tax and business is one that plenty of Americans still admire. It seems, these days, it’s simply not a topic Trump-centric enough for his liking.

Telegraph, London

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