Trump in May is Different from Trump in April, But He is Always Scary and Dangerous

by Neil H. Buchanan

What do people in other countries think about the possibility that Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States?  What, for that matter, must they think about a country with a major party that would nominate that particularly absurd demagogue?

I recently returned from a three-week trip to Australia and New Zealand, where I had been invited to give talks about tax policy and the U.S. elections.  Reflecting on that trip and my interactions with people in those countries allows me to take a bit of a step back from the day-to-day news cycle.  Even though I remained completely engaged with U.S. news sources while I was abroad, being so far away from home was still enough to give me some perspective.

It is possible now to think back on what I was thinking as I left the U.S. in late April, as opposed to where things stand today.  The picture has changed so completely, so quickly, that it is necessary to remind myself that it was not even four weeks ago that I boarded the airplane at Dulles Airport.

The professional aspects of the trip involved five speaking engagements.  (Actually, I also gave a seminar at Monash University in Melbourne, at which I discussed the forthcoming Buchanan-Dorf article in which we defend the independence of the Federal Reserve.  But that was a one-off.)  The formats varied, from a discussion with tax lawyers over dinner at a pub near the University of Melbourne, to the usual academic seminars with social scientists and legal academics (at the University of Tasmania, Victoria University of Wellington, and the University of New South Wales in Sydney), to a large public lecture co-sponsored by the University of Auckland and a national New Zealand law firm.

Although these talks were in different venues with different types of audiences, the reactions at each place boiled down to a few basic questions: How did this happen?  How bad would Trump really be?  And could he really win?  It was amazing how much things changed just in the short time that I was there, such that my presentation had to change fairly significantly even over the space of a few days.

The biggest change in the overall story happened only a day before my first speaking engagement.  Whereas I had been prepared to talk about the possibility of a brokered Republican convention and possibly a draft of someone like Paul Ryan, or the possibility of third-party candidacies, Trump's May 2 win in the Indiana primary ended all of that speculation almost immediately.  Trump was the nominee-to-be, and that news reverberated to the other side of the world.  It still made sense to mention Ted Cruz and John Kasich in my May 4 and May 6 talks, but by May 9, they were not even worth using as "remember them?" contrasts to Trump.

I had written the title of my speech, "The U.S. Presidential Election, Taxes, and the Possibilities for Prosperity," a few months before the trip began.  In light of the unexpectedly early end to the Republican nominating contest, however, I had to tell my audiences that the more accurate title would be something like, "The U.S. Presidential Election and the Possibilities for Catastrophe, with a Few Thoughts on Tax Policy If There Is Enough Time."  Tax policy is important, but the political upheaval was what mattered most.

These audiences seemed rather well informed about the U.S. election, at least in terms of the latest news.  Unfortunately, the U.S. media seem to have exported the annoying narrative that equates Trump and Bernie Sanders as equally extreme populists on the right and left.  That meant that I had to explain the differences in kind and degree between Trump's extremism and Sanders's slightly-to-the-left-of-his-adopted-party response to long-term economic stagnation.  As it turned out, the audiences understood that difference quite readily, especially because they understand just how ideologically non-extreme the Democratic Party is in comparison to left-leaning parties in similarly wealthy countries.  If anything, it remains a mystery why the response on the left in the U.S. has been so mild.

Even so, it is understandable that people wanted to know what Trump would do if elected.  To which the answer was, of course, that no one knows.  I told my audiences that I had written down the few vague statements that Trump had made about fiscal policy, but each day brought with it new contradictions and flip-flopping from Trump.  Discussing any details at all seemed rather pointless.  Trump's jaw-droppingly insane comments about repudiating government debt, and his even crazier walk-back of those comments, had everyone's heads spinning during Week Two of the trip, but by Week Three those were almost-forgotten historical artifacts.

In the end, the difficult point that I tried to make in various ways is that, although no one knows what Trump would do, we somehow know that his decisions would be dangerous and foolish.  Even when he vacillates on the details of the anti-immigration wall, or says things that suggest that maybe he would not order the U.S. military to commit war crimes (embedded within a comment in which he seems to say that he would simply redefine war crimes), there is little doubt about Trump's default preferences.

Similarly, although he occasionally says things about taxes that sound vaguely progressive, he continually circles back around to endorsing huge, regressive tax cuts.  And if anyone could lead us into a genuine debt crisis (not the imaginary one that Republicans like Paul Ryan continue to predict will surely happen any day now), it is Trump.

Indeed, I heard a very interesting theory from an academic who attended one of my talks.  He noted that Trump can only be elected in an environment of genuine crisis, but Trump himself can create the crisis that could get him elected.  (This theory has subsequently shown up in some analyses in the U.S. press as well.)

After all, Ronald Reagan's accidental presidency would not have happened without the Iranian hostage crisis, which truly changed history.  There is evidence that the Reagan campaign intervened in the hostage crisis to try to prevent the hostages from being released before Election Day in 1980.  However, there is no evidence that Reagan or any of his supporters somehow created the hostage crisis in the first place.  Trump, by contrast, could scare investors enough to induce a market plunge, which would then create the chaos on which his candidacy could thrive.

I do not see any evidence that Trump is consciously pursuing such a strategy, at least so far.  But it is notable that his candidacy continues to be a personality-driven event, with positions on policy changing on a daily basis.  Deliberately or not, the closer he appears to be to winning, the more likely it is that he could benefit from a truly vicious cycle of market-driven panic.

Notwithstanding how genuinely scary Trump's candidacy continues to be, the most notable change between the political discussion before I left on my trip and now is that he has already become somehow normalized.  Senator Lindsey Graham is now supporting Trump, and John McCain is being oddly positive.  In late April, the conventional wisdom was that a Trump nomination would fracture the party.  Now, it is just a matter of watching the sheepish (in both senses of the term) Republicans mostly fall in line.

The next five months or so will show just how willing people are to vote for a racist, misogynistic xenophobe.  If the last four weeks are any guide, it might not matter that Trump is somehow both content-free and substantively awful.  Or, we will learn that the demographics of the U.S. have already moved us to the point where Trump flames out badly.  It should not even be a possibility that Trump could win this election, but here we are.  Through it all, however, it's good to be home.