The Donald Trump Playbook

Campaign in populism, govern in plutocracy

John Locher / AP

What do Donald Trump supporters expect from the president-elect?

Some expect him to bring back manufacturing jobs sent to China and Mexico. Some expect him to “drain the swamp” and banish elite interests in Washington. Some expect him to restore the order of mid-20th-century America, where whites—and especially white men—enjoyed a cultural, demographic, and economic advantage that they feel is slipping away. Perhaps for others, their expectations are not about any specific policy, but rather a more ineffable feeling: They want respect, above all, and they have lifted up a man who has promised to lift them up in return.

It’s fair to say that no supporter, journalist, or politician has any special forecasting power when it comes to the policy preferences of a President Donald Trump. But in the days after his shocking election, those following his transition have noticed a theme: Trump’s advertisement for populism may ultimately disguise a policy of surprisingly old-fashioned elite enrichment.

First, the transition team itself is stocked with members of the same powerful and plutocratic class that he attacked on the campaign trail. His chief strategist seems far more concerned about the destruction of the left than about reforming capitalism to repair income inequality. His closest economic advisers include several multi-millionaires and a few billionaires. Many of these advisers are proponents of rolling back banking regulations designed to spare poor Americans of the worst abuses of Wall Street.

One of them, Anthony Scaramucci, an investment banker, has promised to fight the Labor Department’s “fiduciary rule,” which was designed by the government to protect people from financial advisers who put their own profit ahead of their clients' interest. Criticizing the burden the law placed on wealth managers, Scaramucci compared the rule to the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision, which declared that slaves were not citizens. Although Scaramucci later tweeted that he had intended for the comparison to be about “bad governmental decisions,” equating wealthy financial advisers to slaves is far from populism.

Second, the piece of Trump’s economic policy that fits best with congressional Republican preferences is his proposed tax cut, which would reduce government revenues by $6 trillion in the next decade. Half of this cut would go to the richest 1 percent of Americans. Furthermore, Trump has proposed to change the tax treatment of so-called “S corporations” to allow closely held companies (like his own) to get a 20-percentage-point tax cut on all income.

Third, there are several reasons to worry that the industrial workers who are relying on Trump to turn back the clock on globalization and technological change have misplaced their hopes. The real-estate mogul has promised to renegotiate trade deals and and slap tariffs on any countries, like China, that don’t accept his terms. If this happened, prices on Chinese and other exports would rise, punishing low-income families who need cheap essentials to make ends meet.

The Peterson Institute for International Economics, a pro-trade think tank that is considered bipartisan, has estimated that under a "full trade war scenario," hundreds of thousands of jobs would be at risk across the Rust Belt, with Michigan facing some of the worst losses. A trade war with a country like China could be catastrophic for many U.S. companies, not only those who sell to Chinese consumers, but also those who rely on a global supply chain that includes Chinese factories and distribution centers. By taking business away from manufacturers and companies, Trump’s policies could hurt the very workers he’s promised to protect. Meanwhile, Trump and Congressional Republicans have promised to repeal a great deal of the Affordable Care Act, which would strip about 20 million people of insurance coverage. Add to that the fact that his tax cut would require trillions in cuts to programs that help the poor, young, and sick just to keep from blowing open the deficit, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Trump’s policies could endanger, rather than protect, manufacturing jobs while unraveling the safety net to catch workers who are without work.

As I thought about the potential gap between the hopes of downtrodden Trump supporters and the possible effects of his policies, I thought of Trump University, his controversial and possibly fraudulent real-estate school. With Trump U, the mogul enticed people to sign up for a program stamped with his surname, which did not provide anything close to a worthwhile education, according to many accounts. “While Trump University claimed it wanted to help consumers make money in real estate, in fact Trump University was only interested in selling every person the most expensive seminars they possibly could,” said Ronald Schnackenberg, a former salesman for the school. What initially seemed like a plan to democratize wealth instead revealed itself to be transfer of money from the desperate to the rich—specifically, to Trump, himself.

Trump’s ideas are such a shock to the economic order that it is hard to predict what exactly would happen if they became policy. Would an infrastructure stimulus bill combined with a massive tax cut boost economic growth by putting blue-collar men back to work while putting billions of dollars into the hands of consumers? Maybe. Might such policies scare foreign borrowers nervous about lending more money to a president who has said he might explore defaulting on U.S. debt? Maybe. Or might the next few years be dominated by non-economic news as the economy continues its thermostatic recovery while the culture wars resurge? Maybe.

But there is another plausible outcome, which is that Trump, a Republican president with a Republican majority, will govern like a traditional Republican. That is, he will be most successful enacting economic policy that jives with modern GOP orthodoxy, like tax cuts, spending cuts to programs like Medicaid, and financial deregulation, the sum of which would allow rich Americans to make more money and keep more shielded from taxes while gutting social-insurance programs that protect Americans from poverty, unemployment, and other forms of bad luck.

With Trump University, the president-elect took advantage of desperation, converting the vague aspirations of older and less educated Americans into his own profit machine, while giving his customers nearly nothing in return. It will require unblinking vigilance from both voters and journalists to ensure that his university was not a dress rehearsal for his presidency.