Yes, Trump's presidential campaign is a racist clownshow. And no, polls from July 2015 don't say very much about who will be president in January 2017. But there's more to Trump's burgeoning popularity than immigrant-bashing alone. He's running as a full-blown plutocrat populist, and populism is, well, popular -- especially after a grinding recession. That should be concerning to his 2016 opponents, since the platform Trump has outlined on the trail has a long and successful history in American politics.
"All I want to do is make us rich, save your Social Security, [and] stop having everyone rip us off!" Trump said to cheers Tuesday.
He was speaking at a rally in South Carolina, where his biggest applause lines weren't the shots at Lindsey Graham, Jeb Bush or Rick Perry that animated cable news. Instead, Trump's loudest cheers came for his economic policy pronouncements on trade, which serve as a racist mirror of Bernie Sanders' populist platform.
Trump never bemoans working conditions in overseas sweatshops, human trafficking abuses or the effect of prescription drug monopolies on the global poor (Sanders' conservative critics conveniently overlook these concerns, as well). Instead, Trump points his finger at China and Mexico, and says weak, corrupt politicians have negotiated away American jobs. When he trashed Apple on Tuesday for making iPhones in China instead of in the United States, and vowed to renegotiate trade policies to bring manufacturing jobs back home, Trump was tapping into decades of deep anger felt by working-class people across the political spectrum. Since the 1990s, American trade policies have indeed offshored jobs, depressed wages and exacerbated income inequality.
Trump has also largely eschewed the poverty-shaming strain of Republicanism espoused in Paul Ryan's "makers and takers" rhetoric, Scott Walker's drug testing of food stamp applicants, and the "let him die" episode from a 2011 primary debate. But not all of the GOP base wants to stick it to the poors. Many of them are poor, and fed up with a government that doesn't seem to be looking out for them. They like Medicare and Social Security, and think Democrats are raiding the programs to fund Obamacare and Obamaphones. They don't see why banks should get bailouts while their friends get pink slips.
Trump is targeting that segment of the Republican party, which shares many economic concerns with Democrats and independents. Trump's campaign speeches don't revert to the time-honored Republican promise to "save" Social Security by slashing benefits for retirees. Instead, he vows to preserve the safety net -- even Medicaid -- by making everybody so rich that the programs would be on sound financial footing.
"I can bring wealth in so that we can save your Social Security without cuts," Trump said Tuesday, before mocking his GOP opponents. "All the Republicans are talking about, 'We're gonna cut, we're gonna raise the age, we're gonna do this, your Medicare, your Medicaid, your Social Security.'"
In other words, Trump hasn't been practicing the politics of mean-spirited poor-bashing; he's practicing mean-spirited foreigner-bashing. His populism is entirely outward-looking. He doesn't talk about higher taxes on the rich or regulatory policies to prevent exploitation. The magic economic elixir his platform peddles is always trade: He'll stick it to Mexico and China and any U.S. company that wants to send jobs overseas. After that, everybody gets rich. The economics of this, of course, are as fantastical as Trump's vow to make Mexico pay for a giant wall across the Texas border. But it's popular, and Trump knows it. After all, he's been pitching get-rich-quick schemes at massive conferences for years.
Even when Trump makes the standard politician's plea to rise above petty politics, he's channelling nationalism rather than a centrist call for bipartisanship.
"You know, it's like, aren't we all on the same track?" Trump said Tuesday. "Whether you're a liberal, a Democrat, a conservative, a Republican, or all of 'em. I mean, aren't we like sort of all on the same track? You wanna make our country great. I know people that are Democrats that love our country. I know people that are liberals, believe it or not, that love our country."
This is not the populism of Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, both of whom give voice to the idea that the political system is rigged against working people. But in his own way, Trump confirms much of their critique, essentially by telling crowds that he has been taking advantage of a rigged campaign finance system all his life.
You know, I give to everybody. People say, 'Oh you gave to the Democrats.' Well, of course I do. Because I'm intelligent. 'You gave to the Republicans! You gave to Hillary! You gave here.' Of course I do. When I want something, I get it. I was a businessman until a few months ago. When I want something, I give here -- and that's one part of the problem with our system. Until a couple of months ago, I could have anything. Believe me. If a Republican wants, if a Dem -- I give! When I need something, I call. 'Oh Mr. Trump, sir, how are you? What can I do for you?' …. And if you need something, later on. They win their election or they lose their election. If you need something, you call 'em, they treat you great. Like royalty. Like royalty. And a businessman, a businessperson, knows the game ... If you can't get rich dealing with politicians, there's something wrong with you.
Most people find such straightforward corruption appalling. But since most people already believe it's happening, Trump doesn't pay much of a price for being honest about the way the system functions. Indeed, he actually gets a leg up on his opponents by saying he is immune to the pleas of wealthy donors, since he doesn't need their money to run a financially viable campaign.
"When people come up to me and they say, 'Mr. Trump, I'd like for you to do this' -- which is good for him, but bad for the country -- I'll say, 'I'm sorry, folks. I'm not doing it. I'm only doing the right thing,'" Trump said.
Smart Democratic strategists have long worried that a savvy Republican would tap into voter outrage over the 2008 bank bailouts and take back the populist mantle. They probably didn't expect to see it from a real estate billionaire, but history has shown Trump's policy brew can be politically potent. Democrats were essentially invincible from 1932 to 1964, when they pushed hardline populist economic policies, tough-guy nationalist foreign policy and a tolerance of (or, often, outright advocacy for) domestic racism. That coalition collapsed when Democrats backed the civil rights movement and tough-guy nationalism led to a disastrous war in Vietnam.
But the voters who jumped to the Republican Party have always had a somewhat uneasy relationship with GOP's bankers-and-brokers-first economic agenda, and Trump has a real opportunity to pick up votes that his opponents won't seek out for fear of alienating their billionaire backers.
Trump is essentially a Democrat from the 1950s, wrapped in the persona of a Republican from the 1920s. Even if he's just trying to sell some books, that'll do the trick.